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Clarence Thomas Dissented in Horrendous Qualified Immunity Case, But Probably Not for the Reasons People Think

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 20: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia Thomas arrive for the funeral for fellow Associate Justice Antonin Scalia at the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception February 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. Scalia, who died February 13 while on a hunting trip in Texas, layed in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday and his funeral service will be at the basillica today.

I will admit, my outrage-o-meter was all fired up this morning when I read that Clarence Thomas dissented in a case about whether to extend qualified immunity to a bunch of corrections officers who forced an inmate to sleep in abject filth for a week. Seven members of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trent Michael Taylor on Monday; Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate. Harsh words quickly rolled in for Thomas, the lone dissenter.

The case at issue is Trent Michael Taylor v. Robert Riojas, and the facts are not for the weak of stomach. Taylor, an inmate, was stripped naked and forced to stay in a cell covered in feces. He was forced to sleep on the floor, and could neither eat nor drink because feces had been packed inside the water faucet. After a few days in those horrific conditions, Taylor was moved into a “seclusion cell” without a toilet, water fountain, or bed. Eventually, raw sewage overflowed from a drain in the room, spilling across the floor, and Taylor was forced sleep, naked, in the filth.

Taylor sued prison officials for violation of his Eight Amendment rights – and they did not dispute his allegations. They did, however, argue that they were entitled to qualified immunity from legal liability.  As so goes the court-created doctrine, because no case has ever “clearly established” that the specific conduct of these guards amounted to a violation of 8A, the guards had no “fair warning” that their conduct had been unconstitutional. This lack of warning, under precedent, shields them from liability.

Truly, the defendants’ logic is appalling to even contemplate; that the Fifth Circuit agreed is nothing short of horrifying. A panel of that court, made up of Judges Edith Jones and Jerry E. Smith (both Ronald Reagan-appointees) and Chief Judge Priscilla Owen (a George W. Bush-appointee) agreed to shield the officers from liability on grounds that they were entitled to qualified immunity.

The court even said that there could be “any number of perfectly valid reasons for” forcing inmates to sleep naked on the floor. While the court called Taylor’s claim “extraordinary,” it also ruled that his six-day stint in squalid conditions wasn’t long enough to constitute a clear constitutional violation. “Though the law was clear that prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste for months on end, we hadn’t previously held that a time period so short violated the Constitution. That dooms Taylor’s claim,” wrote the court.

The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit on appeal, calling out the Fifth Circuit for improper application of the qualified immunity doctrine.  “No reasonable correctional officer,” ruled SCOTUS, “could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” SCOTUS’ takedown of the Fifth Circuit was a welcome check on unfettered 8A violations.

Clarence Thomas, though, dissented.

I think it’s fair to say that most people would agree that it doesn’t take volumes of legal precedent for a prison guard to know that Taylor’s conditions were out-of-bounds. The case hardly presented a complex question of prison administration – and the prison staff should be worried about more than civil lawsuits for their cruelty.

So did Justice Thomas really think the guards acted appropriately? Did he really think they shouldn’t answer for their actions? Although I have, very, very often, disagreed with Clarence Thomas, my guess here is no.

Thomas dissented without comment, but there’s reason to believe that his dissent is actually a vote for the rights of someone mistreated at the hands of law enforcement.

Clarence Thomas, you see, has already gone on record as being skeptical about the entire doctrine of qualified immunity.

The Supreme Court, in June of 2020, denied certiorari in the case of Alexander L. Baxter v. Brad Bracey. The case asked whether a police officer deserved qualified immunity after he allegedly set an attack dog on a man who had already surrendered. Thomas dissented from the denial of certiorari, saying that he would have heard the case because he has “strong doubts about our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine.”

In his dissent, Thomas explained that 42 U. S. C. §1983 (the statute that provides for civil rights lawsuits against local law enforcement) had been Congress’ response to  “the reign of terror imposed by the Klan upon black citizens and their white sympathizers in the Southern States.” Neither the text of §1983, nor the first century of its history raises immunity as a defense. Then, over time, as various cases raised the defense of officials having acted in good faith, courts developed what became the doctrine of qualified immunity.

As Thomas pointed out in the case, though, as the doctrine developed “officials were not always immune from liability for their good-faith conduct.” For Thomas, the goal is to ensure that §1983 is applied now just as it had been at common law. Some review, he suggested, is in order. “Regardless of what the outcome would be,” he wrote, “we at least ought to return to the approach of asking” whether immunity “was ‘historically accorded the relevant official’ in an analogous situation ‘at common law.’” Given that the Court has already looked to the past for guidance in cases dealing with absolute immunity, the same should be done for qualified immunity cases.

That’s not all, either. In a footnote, Thomas also suggested that another part of §1983 might warrant a review as well. That part – the requirement that a defendant officer must have been acting “under color of law” to be liable – is separate from qualified immunity. Thomas concedes, “Although concern about revisiting one doctrine but not the other is understandable.”

That case hadn’t been the first time Thomas spoke up about his skepticism regarding qualified immunity. In 2017, Thomas concurred in Ziglar v. Abbasi. The justice explained that he wrote separately “to note my growing concern with our qualified immunity jurisprudence.” The case dealt with claims by unlawfully-present aliens arrested in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks for damages suffered while in confinement. Thomas was critical of the majority’s reliance on the qualified immunity doctrine:

“Instead of asking whether the common law in 1871 would have accorded immunity to an officer for a tort analogous to the plaintiff ’s claim under §1983, we instead grant immunity to any officer whose conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Calling the Court’s qualified immunity precedents “free-wheeling policy choice[s]” that the Court “previously disclaimed the power to make,” Thomas advocated that SCOTUS “shift the focus of our inquiry to whether immunity existed at common law,” and “reconsider our qualified immunity jurisprudence.”

Of course, none of this means that Justice Thomas has revealed his opinion as to whether the prison guards in Trent Michael Taylor’s case should be held liable; such is clearly outside the scope of the Supreme Court’s review. Of course, given that Justice Thomas noted his dissent, one might wonder why he did not at least opt to clarify his view as to the facts. Without such clarification, there’s quite a bit of room for speculation as to whether Thomas’s discontent had any relationship with the obvious injustice that the Fifth Circuit’s application of qualified immunity appeared to have on Taylor as an individual.

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos