Senate at logjam over changing 'qualified immunity' for police

Qualified immunity is emerging as a key sticking point in the congressional debate over reforming the police.

The legal doctrine, which can protect police officers from civil lawsuits, is facing fresh national scrutiny in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the custody of Minneapolis police.  

But what, if anything, to do to change it is creating deep divisions in Congress, just as lawmakers are trying to find a larger deal.  

ADVERTISEMENT

A Democratic proposal would make sweeping overhauls to the legal doctrine. But GOP senators, backed by the White House, say changes are largely a non-starter.  

Asked about the chances that overhauling qualified immunity ends up in a final police reform bill, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, indicated that, based on early conversations with members, many would not be able to support it.  

“That may be, you know, a bridge too far for a lot of our members,” he said.  

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottBiden says he will review executive actions after police reform talks fail Lawmakers say police reform talks are over DOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries MORE (R-S.C.), who is spearheading a Republican police reform proposal, said that he believes a host of provisions supported by Democrats, including ending qualified immunity, would not have enough support to make it into a final package.  

“I don’t see how those things get to the finish line,” he said.  

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Democrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan MORE (R-Texas) said that he wanted Congress to get a bipartisan deal but that some proposals, like eliminating qualified immunity, “would be a lot more controversial.”  

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s a tough job under any set of circumstances and to have lawsuits filed which sort of flyspeck what you did or didn’t do at a time when you didn’t know whether you know, somebody is trying to kill you or not. ... I think you need that sort of balancing of interests that qualified immunity provides,” Cornyn said. 

 Scott and a group of Republicans are drafting a police reform bill responding to Floyd’s death that could be released as soon as this week. That bill, according to multiple GOP senators, is not expected to end qualified immunity.  

Some GOP senators have signaled they are open to discussing qualified immunity but acknowledged that they are outnumbered by Republican colleagues who oppose making changes to it as part of a reform deal. 

“Most in our conference don’t want to go that far, but I’m not ruling it out. I want to see if I can get a few others interested in looking at that as well, because I think that’d be the one thing that would show that, in our conference, we mean business,” said Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in Republicans unveil bill to ban federal funding of critical race theory MORE (R-Ind.).  

Both the White House and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrWoodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China Barr-Durham investigation again fails to produce a main event Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins MORE have signaled they would not support proposals to scale back qualified immunity. 

President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE is “looking at a number of proposals, but there are some non-starters in there, I would say — particularly on the immunity issue,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters this week.  

Qualified immunity, developed through a handful of Supreme Court rulings, protects police officers from being held personally liable if their actions do not violate a “clearly established” law. There are currently eight cases related to qualified immunity under consideration by the Supreme Court, though justices would need to agree to hear the cases. Justices Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasClarence Thomas warns against 'destroying our institutions,' defends the Supreme Court Supreme Court returning to courtroom for arguments The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorWill the DOJ manage to protect our constitutional rights now that the Supreme Court refuses to? Supreme Court trashed its own authority in a rush to gut Roe v Wade Supreme Court's abortion ruling amplifies progressives' call for reform MORE have both voiced skepticism about the legal doctrine. 

Critics argue that its intent, to protect police officers from frivolous lawsuits, has instead been stretched to make it difficult for someone to sue a police officer even in cases where they believe there are clear examples of excessive force or violations of civil rights.  

A Reuters investigation found that police were granted immunity in more than half of 252 appeals court cases from 2015 to 2019. 

Democrats have included a provision in their bill that would make fundamental changes to qualified immunity.  

It would “eliminate the dubious court-made doctrine of qualified immunity for law enforcement,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBiden to raise refugee cap to 125,000 in October Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan Angelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators MORE (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday.  

The bill, which is expected to be voted on in the House this month, would allow for individuals to receive damages in civil court “when law enforcement officers violate their constitutional rights by eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement,” according to a Judiciary Committee fact sheet.  

ADVERTISEMENT

The bill would specifically say that a defendant is not immune from lawsuits because they were acting in a way they thought was reasonable or lawful at the time or because they weren’t violating a “clearly established” law.  

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCOVID-19: US should help Africa, or China will GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic senator, said changes to qualified immunity would have to be in a police reform deal in order to get his support.  

“The standard is impossible. You virtually have to produce an identical set of facts to ask the court to hold anyone in law enforcement accountable. You have to find an identical set of facts as a previous case, and that is almost impossible,” he added.