NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

Issues

Author

David L. Noll

Results

Qualified Immunity in Limbo: Rights, Procedure, and the Social Costs of Damages Litigation Against Public Officials

David L. Noll

Damages litigation against public officials implicates social costs that ordinary civil litigation between private parties does not. Litigation against public officials costs taxpayers money, may inhibit officials in the performance of their duties, and has the potential to reveal privileged information and decisionmaking processes. The doctrine of qualified immunity—that public officials are generally immune from civil liability for their official actions unless they have unreasonably violated a clearly established federal right—is designed to address these risks. The doctrine, however, demands an application of law to facts that, as a practical matter, requires substantial pretrial discovery. Federal courts have responded with a variety of novel procedural devices. This Note critiques those devices and suggests that courts confronted with a claim of qualified immunity should view their principal task as narrowing the universe of the plaintiff’s claims, thus facilitating a discovery process structured around dispositive legal issues.

Ad Hoc Procedure

Pamela K. Bookman, David L. Noll

“Ad hoc procedure” seems like an oxymoron. A traditional model of the civil justice system depicts courts deciding cases using impartial procedures that are defined in advance of specific disputes. This model reflects a process-based account of the rule of law in which the process through which laws are made helps to ensure that lawmakers act in the public interest. Judgments produced using procedures promulgated in advance of specific disputes are legitimate because they are the product of fair rules of play designed in a manner that is the opposite of ad hoc.

Actual litigation frequently reveals the inadequacy of procedures created according to this traditional model. To fix the procedural problems that arise in such cases, litigants, judges, lawyers, and legislatures can design procedure on the fly, changing the “rules of the road” as the case proceeds. Ad hoc procedure-making allows the civil justice system to function when ordinary procedure fails, but it challenges the rule-of-law values reflected in the traditional model of procedural design. Instead of being created by lawmakers who operate behind a veil of ignorance, ad hoc procedure is made by actors seeking specific outcomes in pending cases. The circumstances in which ad hoc procedure is created raise concerns about lawmakers’ motivations, the transaction costs of one-off procedural interventions, the wisdom and fairness of those interventions, and the separation of powers.

This Article introduces the phenomenon of ad hoc procedure and considers its place in a world where much procedure continues to be made through the traditional model. Focusing on ad hoc procedural statutes, the Article contends that such statutes’ legitimacy—or lack thereof—depends on different factors than ordinary civil procedure. Unable to claim legitimacy from the circumstances in which it is crafted, ad hoc procedural legislation must instead derive legitimacy from the need to address a procedural problem and the effort to produce substantively just outcomes.