In all the attention paid to the marriage equality cases, it was easy to miss a rare bit of good news from the Supreme Court when it comes to criminal justice and government immunity issues. On March 27, the court handed down a 9-0 ruling in Millbrook v United States limiting the immunity of prison guards to suits over abuse and misconduct.
The decision was remarkably fast, having been argued on Feb. 19 and decided on March 27, and remarkably unanimous. Rarely do we see unanimous rulings on criminal justice cases. Rarer still do we see a ruling written by Justice Thomas that upholds any rights of prisoners or the accused in any criminal justice case. The case involves an inmate who sued the government after allegedly being sexually assaulted by prison guards. The government is usually immune to suits based on the conduct of its employees and the lower courts had dismissed the case for that reason, but the Supreme Court overturned those rulings and allowed the case to go forward.
Also interesting is that this is a rare case where the Obama administration was on the side of civil liberties in court (in fact, I can only think of two such cases where they have done so, this one and a case on recording the police). But they weren’t initially. Like the DOMA case, the DOJ originally defended the government’s immunity, but changed their position when the case got to the Supreme Court. So the court appointed an amicus attorney to argue in favor of total immunity while the DOJ filed a brief on the right side of the case.
It’s a good ruling, but it’s only barely a first step. Prosecutorial immunity has to go as well.