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