Cite as: 582 U. S. ____ (2017) 5
must be regarded as a new one. Pp. 23–26.
4. Petitioners are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to re-
spondents’ claims under 42 U. S. C. §1985(3). Pp. 26–32.
(a) Assuming that respondents’ allegations are true and well pleaded, the question is whether a reasonable officer in petitioners’ position would have known the alleged conduct was an unlawful con- spiracy. The qualified-immunity inquiry turns on the “objective legal reasonableness” of the official’s acts, Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800, 819, “assessed in light of the legal rules that were ‘clearly estab- lished’ at the time [the action] was taken,” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U. S. 635, 639. If it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that the alleged conduct “was unlawful in the situation he confront- ed,” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 202, the defendant officer is not entitled to qualified immunity. But if a reasonable officer might not have known that the conduct was unlawful, then the officer is enti-
tled to qualified immunity. Pp. 27–29.
(b) Here, reasonable officials in petitioners’ positions would not
have known with sufficient certainty that §1985(3) prohibited their joint consultations and the resulting policies. There are two reasons. First, the conspiracy is alleged to have been among officers in the same Department of the Federal Government. And there is no clear- ly established law on the issue whether agents of the same executive department are distinct enough to “conspire” with one another within the meaning of 42 U. S. C. §1985(3). Second, open discussion among federal officers should be encouraged to help those officials reach con- sensus on department policies, so there is a reasonable argument that §1985(3) liability should not extend to cases like this one. As these considerations indicate, the question whether federal officials can be said to “conspire” in these kinds of situations is sufficiently open that the officials in this suit would not have known that §1985(3) applied to their discussions and actions. It follows that rea- sonable officers in petitioners’ positions would not have known with any certainty that the alleged agreements were forbidden by that statute. Pp. 29–32.
KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, IV–A, and V, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV–B, in which ROB- ERTS, C. J., and ALITO, J., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concur- ring in part and concurring in the judgment. BREYER, J., filed a dis- senting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.
It was an odd opinion in that only six Justices participated, so the majority was 4-2. The majority opinion was Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. But, the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Alito also wrote or joined in separate concurring opinions. Justice Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joined.
Justices Sotomayer, Kagan, and Gorsuch sat this one out. Justice Sotomayor previously was a Judge on the Second Circuit at the time this case was before that court. Justice Kagan worked on the case as Solicitor General. And, Justice Gorsuch arrived too late to participate in the argument and deliberations.
However, I doubt that there would be a difference in result with all nine Justices voting. Justice Gorsuch almost certainly would side with the majority opinion’s “strict construction” of liability. Even assuming that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan would side with the dissenters, there would still be a 5-4 majority for the approach set forth in Justice Kennedy’s opinion.
Reading between the lines here, I think that the whole Bivens concept is “on the rocks” before this Court. The current, more conservative, Court clearly wishes Bivens were never decided and wants to limit it essentially to its facts. With a GOP President, any future appointments are likely to turn the tide even more solidly for overruling or strictly limiting Bivens.
I must admit to having mixed feelings. As a Government Senior Executive I was subject to several (totally unfounded) Bivens suits. I was greatly relieved and totally delighted when the doctrines of absolute and implied immunity got me dismissed in my private capacity. I also took out a standard Government approved “Bivens liability insurance policy” just in case.
On the other hand, I’d have to say that the specter of being involved in Bivens litigation was something that I and almost all of the other senior government officials whom I advised and worked with, up to and including Cabinet officers, had Bivens in the back of our “collective minds” in determining actions and policies. So, there was at least some “deterrent value” in the Bivens case. Moreover, it was an effective tool for pointing out the necessity for line enforcement officers, whom I often trained or advised, to keep their actions within clearly established constitutional boundries.
The Court suggests that it would be best for Congress to address this subject. But, Bivens has been around for many years and Congress has never addressed it. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Interestingly, among those high-ranking officials who were relieved of any liability in this case were former Attorney General John Ashcroft and then FBI Director Robert Mueller.