The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that city officials cannot be sued in federal civil rights lawsuits for what they do as legislators. In a unanimous decision, the justices said city council members and other local lawmakers have the same immunity from lawsuit as federal and state legislators, even if they vote or otherwise act based on discriminatory motives.
“Regardless of the level of government, the exercise of legislative discretion should not be inhibited by judicial interference or distorted by the fear of personal liability,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, saying that immunity for local legislators finds strong support in history.
Addressing concerns in the case about governmental abuse, Thomas said municipalities still can be held liable for constitutional violations and that the voters can ultimately remove from office lawmakers who have acted in bad faith.
The case was brought by Janet Scott-Harris - administrator of the Fall River, Mass., health and human services department - who lost her job after the city council eliminated her position. She said the council was retaliating for her attempts to fire a temporary employee who made repeated racial and ethnic slurs about her colleagues. Scott-Harris said the employee used her political connections to press her case with elected officials on the city council.
Scott-Harris sued the city and several officials, claiming that the council was motivated by racial animus and a desire to punish her for exercising her First Amendment rights in filing the complaint against her subordinate.
A federal appeals court ruled that while city officials are immune for liability arising from legitimate legislative activities, the challenged conduct was not legislative.
But the Supreme Court reversed that decision, concluding that the city officials’ votes “were undoubtedly legislative.” Thomas, writing for the court in Bogan vs. ScottHarris, said courts should not inquire into the motives of legislators in such cases.