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Chairman Nadler Statement for Hearing on "Examining Civil Rights Litigation Reform, Part 1: Qualified Immunity"

Washington, March 31, 2022

Washington, D.C. - Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, during a Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on "Examining Civil Rights Litigation Reform, Part 1: Qualified Immunity:"

“More than a century and a half ago, Congress passed one of the earliest civil rights laws in our Nation’s history—the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.  Section 1 of that law, now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983, empowers individuals to sue state and local government officials who violate their federal rights under color of state law.  This private right of action is a critical means of holding government officials accountable.  

“To fully appreciate Congress’s intent in passing the statute, we must understand the historical backdrop against which it created Section 1983’s right to sue.  

“Section 1983 originated from the unwillingness of state officials to protect and enforce the constitutional rights of African Americans after the Civil War.  During this period, the Ku Klux Klan and its allies used racial violence and terror to undo the gains of Reconstruction.  Under the cover of darkness and cloaked in hoods to conceal their identity, Klan members roamed the South with impunity, mutilating and murdering African Americans in bloody massacres.  This barbarity often went unpunished as former Confederate states did little to stop the violence; in fact, law enforcement frequently partook in the acts themselves.  

“The complicitly of these local governments left victims with no recourse until Congress responded with Section 1983.  In drafting the statute, Congress sought accountability from state and local officials by arming victims of state-sponsored abuse with a federal court remedy.  

“Unfortunately, the accountability that Congress sought to achieve remains largely unrealized.  This is, in large part, because of court decisions applying and expanding legal protections for defendants through the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields state and local officials from liability unless they violate “clearly established” law.  

“Notably, the text of Section 1983 says nothing about qualified immunity, nor is it written in the Constitution.  The doctrine is purely a creation of the Supreme Court.  As we will hear from our witnesses today, this standard imposes a substantial obstacle to recovery for people whose civil rights have been violated.

“Since the Supreme Court first announced the current qualified immunity standard, it has only found that a government official violated clearly established law in three instances.

“This number says it all.  As constitutional scholar and litigator David Gans aptly stated, the Supreme Court “converted a statute designed to open the courthouse doors to those aggrieved by official abuse of power into a statute that bolts the courthouse doors firmly shut, immunizing wrongdoers rather than holding them [accountable].” 

“Indeed, qualified immunity subverts the very purpose of Section 1983 and denies justice to victims of state-sponsored abuse.  We have seen how the doctrine has absolved police officers of the most egregious conduct and we have witnessed Black and Brown lives be devalued as certain officers act with impunity.  This is precisely why I joined Congresswoman Karen Bass in introducing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would, among other things, eliminate the defense of qualified immunity for federal, state, and local law enforcement officers. 

“As Chief Justice John Marshall noted, we are a Nation that “has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men.” He also warned, however, that we “will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.”  

“If we are to heed this warning, state and local government officials who infringe on the constitutional rights of their citizens must be held accountable, but the doctrine of qualified immunity currently stands in the way.  It is imperative, therefore, that we address this issue so that all Americans can enjoy equal protection of the laws, as Congress intended in 1871.

“I want to welcome our witnesses, I look forward to their testimony on this important topic, and I yield back the balance of my time.”