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Cheyenne Rogers is a 2021 ChangeLawyers Scholar and a first year student at UConn Law.
Listen to This How the Supreme Court created racist policing
On a recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, about the Supreme Court’s latest rulings on police immunity and his new book, Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, has been transcribed below.
Dahlia Lithwick: The Supreme Court generously provided a little illumination for this discussion with a pair of unsigned opinions last Monday, which had the court siding with the police in not one but two cases in which plaintiffs claimed that officers had used excessive force, and the court overturned two separate lower court rulings that had allowed the officers to be sued for civil rights violations. Can you talk us through these pair of opinions and maybe through the lens of the much larger conversation you have in the book about this line of qualified immunity cases?
Erwin Chemerinsky: My guess is that most of the audience is familiar with qualified immunity. But just a bit of background: Whenever any government official is sued for money damages, there’s always an immunity defense. Some government officials have absolute immunity and can’t be sued at all for certain tasks—judges for the judicial tasks, prosecutors for the prosecutorial tasks, have absolute immunity.
But government officials who don’t have absolute immunity always have qualified immunity. And the Supreme Court has said that qualified immunity means that a government officer is liable only if he or she violates clearly established law that every reasonable officer should know. It has to be a right established beyond debate. I do think it’s worth pausing saying this is all just judicially created law. There’s nothing in any statute, let alone the constitution, about this. Many on both the right and the left have criticized the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity jurisprudence. In reality, it’s close to absolute immunity, and that’s especially so in police excessive force cases.
Both the rulings that you referred to were police excessive force cases. And I think together, they establish a really important point. The first of these is Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna. And it involves a situation where a woman and her two daughters where barricaded into a bedroom. Abusive boyfriend was there, apparently with a chainsaw to try to cut down the door, and one of the daughters called the police. The police come, they get in an altercation with the man, they shoot him with a couple of bean bags, and then they pin him down to the ground and do so with great force, causing injuries to him. And the question was: Was the action of the police pinning him in that way excessive force? The 9th Circuit said, under 9th Circuit precedent, it clearly was excessive force. The Supreme Court in its per curiam opinion—there’s no dissent—says that it’s reversing the 9th Circuit, and it stresses that there’s no case exactly on point in this situation, so the officers are protected by qualified immunity.
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More of This Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat in 1955. She’s still fighting for justice.
Minutes before the white bus driver told Claudette Colvin in 1955 to give her seat to a white woman, she had been looking out the window, thinking of a Black boy from her neighborhood in Montgomery, Ala., who had been sentenced to death. She remembers thinking of her English teacher’s lesson about understanding and taking pride in her history.
Get off, several white passengers told her. Ms. Colvin, who was 15, stayed put, and was promptly arrested.
“History had me glued to the seat,” she recalled six decades later.
Ms. Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks, filed a petition on Tuesday to have her juvenile arrest record expunged, saying in an affidavit that justice from the court system was overdue.
“I’m not doing it for me, I’m 82 years old,” Ms. Colvin said in an interview on Tuesday. “But I wanted my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to understand that their grandmother stood up for something very important, and that it changed our lives a lot, changed attitudes.”
While Mrs. Parks’s story is well known, Ms. Colvin’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott and the broader civil rights movement has been overlooked. And yet the significance of her defiance that day was widely recognized among the emerging leaders of the movement, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who met with city and bus company officials after her arrest. Ms. Colvin would later serve as the star witness in the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation.
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Speaking Of… The radical housing program that is giving abused women their dignity back
The first thing you notice when you walk into Nilda Palacios’ apartment is that it’s spotless—a blanket is carefully folded on the back of the couch, the floors shine, and cereals and supplements are meticulously arranged on top of the fridge and microwave.
Cleaning is therapeutic, the 38-year-old tells me. A warm and welcoming host in a light blue sweatsuit that accentuates her dark hair and dark eyes, and a shiny cross around her neck that matches her glossy nails, she shows me around while her Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, Milo, follows. Despite the view of the San Francisco Bay Bridge from her back window, her favorite spot, she says, is really her bedroom—with its peach accent wall and purple curtains, a mirrored vanity that’s orderly but crowded with what she calls her “girly stuff.” “It’s homey,” she tells me.
The “we” in this case is Palacios and the three other women who recently become her neighbors. They have all spent much of their lives in prison. But now they live at Home Free, a six-plex on Treasure Island, in the San Francisco Bay, that is a novel transitional housing program for women who share a complicated history: survivors of domestic abuse or trafficking who’ve served long sentences for serious crimes committed against or at the behest of their abusers. These experiences have created a complex web of shared trauma—the abuse, the crimes, the prison system, the reentry—that Home Free aims to untangle.
“I can’t believe that programs like this exist for people like us. I feel safe,” says Palacios, who is the youngest of Home Free’s residents; the oldest is 86. Despite their many differences, she explains, “this is a community here that we all have something in common.”
Read the story on Mother Jones
A new fund to harness the power of lawyers for good
The Legal Empowerment Fund was created as a response to the deepening public consciousness about the importance of law on social justice issues and the need for lawyers of all backgrounds to rise to the challenges posed by the ongoing racial reckoning and the lack of equal justice under the law.
More information + application here >