Monday, January 28, 2008

More immunity for feds

Here's the Register's editorial on the Supreme Court decision last week that extended (as I read the law, the majority of justices obviously disagreed) the range of federal employees who are immune from lawsuits for their misconduct and/or crimes done as part of their duties. The case involved a Muslim in federal prison who was transferred from one facility to another, and when his belongings arrived he discovered his religious items, including two copies of the Quran, were missing. He sued.

The high court chose to interpret a 1946 law whose main purpose was to open government employees to liability, to make the thieves who stole his stuff immune from lawsuits. The old law had some exceptions, including customs officers who misplaced stuff they were inspecting or had confiscated, but included the phrase "any other federal law enforcement officer." I would read that as any law enforcement officer who was performing customs-related duties at the time, but the court said it applied to "any" law enforcement officer, in effect giving all of them blanket protection from lawsuits for misconduct. Outrageous!

If it were up to me, of course, no government employee or official would be immune from liability for actions performed under color of authority. Nor would there be such a concept as "sovereign immunity," which protects the government itself from lawsuits. If personal responsibility is desirable, and I believe it is, everybody in society should be personally responsible for their actions, especially those who work for the instrument of coercion and are constantly subject to the temptation to abuse their authority.

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