In June 2020, amid this fervor and speculation, the Supreme Court declined to hear all the pending qualified-immunity cases on its docket. Advocates viewed that step as an indication that the Court would take no action on qualified immunity, and turned their attention to Congress and the states.
But then, on November 2, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a short, unsigned opinion in a case called Taylor v. Riojas, brought by a prisoner who was kept in a pair of “shockingly unsanitary cells”—one of which was “covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in massive amounts of feces”—for six days. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision granting qualified immunity to the corrections officers because “any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”
David H. Gans: The 14th Amendment was meant to be a protection against state violence
Only once before had the Supreme Court ruled that qualified immunity could be denied in the absence of a prior court opinion on point. In that 2002 case, Hope v. Pelzer, the Court ruled that officers did not need to consult a court decision to know that it was wrong to leave a prisoner shackled to a hitching post all day beneath the Alabama sun—such conduct was obviously unconstitutional. Since 2002, the Court had only paid lip service to the notion that qualified immunity can be defeated without a prior case on point.
The Court’s unsigned opinion in Taylor revived the notion in Hope that qualified immunity could be denied if a constitutional violation is obvious, even if the precise fact pattern is novel. But the opinion did not indicate what impact the Court imagined Taylor would have—whether it was an extraordinary decision responsive to extraordinary facts that would be quickly ignored by the Court (as Hope has been), or whether it reflected a shift in the Court’s thinking about qualified immunity.
Just last week, the Supreme Court offered a clue. The case before it was McCoy v. Alamu, in which a Texas prisoner, Prince McCoy, alleged that a corrections officer sprayed him in the face with mace “for no reason at all.” When the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the officer qualified immunity in February 2020, it relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent, writing that “the pages of the United States Reports teem with warnings about the difficulty of showing that the law was clearly established” for qualified-immunity purposes. But the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court, instructing it to reconsider its decision in light of Taylor.
The Supreme Court did not write an opinion in McCoy; it merely issued a four-line summary disposition vacating the lower court’s opinion and sending it back. But the Court’s reliance on Taylor in its order in McCoy suggests that the Court does not view Taylor as an aberration. Instead, the Court appears to be sending a message that lower courts can deny qualified immunity for clear misconduct, even without a case with identical facts.