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Bivens Liability and Its Alternatives

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided in Hernandez v. Mesa that there is no cause of action for damages if a federal border patrol agent unconstitutionally shoots somebody across the border. The Court had recognized a cause of action under the Fourth Amendment against federal law enforcement agents in a 1971 case called Bivens, and extended it in two subsequent cases, but it has rejected further Bivens claims in every Supreme Court Bivens case in my lifetime and that doesn’t seem likely to change. Two Justices, Thomas and Gorsuch, have called for Bivens to be overruled on the grounds that it lacks a formal or historical basis.

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch are right about that the lack of a formal and historical basis, but I worry about the broader picture. As Justice Thomas’s concurrence notes, it’s not like there was no remedy for unconstitutional conduct before Bivens. Rather, as Thomas writes:

From the ratification of the Bill of Rights until 1971, the Court did not create implied private actions for damages against federal officers alleged to have violated a citizen’s constitutional rights. Suits to recover such damages were generally brought under state law.

What Justice Thomas does not note is that it has become very hard to bring those suits under state law either. There is some debate about whether that difficulty is attributable to Congress’s 1984 enactment of the Westfall Act, various judicial decisions arguably misconstruing that act, or what (see this article by Vladeck and Vasquez), but I think at this point we’re entitled to wonder, if the Court is going to abolish the 20th century remedies for unconstitutional conduct, can we at least have the 19th century remedies back?

Normally the Court lacks the ability to take a big-picture view in these cases, since it has only the issue before it. But in Hernandez, the petitioner foresaw this problem and petitioned the Supreme Court to consider a second question — if there is no Bivens liability, then, he asked:

whether the Westfall Act violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment insofar as it preempts state-law tort suits for damages against rogue federal law enforcement officers acting within the scope of their employment for which there is no alternative legal remedy.

So Hernandez is the rare case in which the Court could have considered both questions at the same time and thus provided an account for what violations of constitutional violations remain. It does seem perverse to think that Congress can eliminate state law damages for constitutional violations without either Congress or the courts providing an alternative . It’s possible that this seemingly perverse result is constitutional, especially if one takes a broad view of federal power, but it seems troubling for the Court to repeatedly narrow Bivens without at least considering that question.

[Cross-posted from Summary, Judgment.]

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About The Author

Will Baude

Founded in 1968, Reason is the magazine of free minds and free markets. We produce hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, technology, culture, policy, and commerce. Reason exists outside of the left/right echo chamber. Our goal is to deliver fresh, unbiased information and insights to our readers, viewers, and listeners every day. Visit https://reason.com

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