In their orders on Monday, the justices struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that had blocked a Texas inmate’s lawsuit against prison officials. The inmate, Trent Taylor, was forced to spend six days naked in cells that contained feces from previous occupants and overflowing sewage. Taylor alleged that prison officials’ conduct violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but the 5th Circuit, invoking a doctrine known as qualified immunity, ruled that the officials could not be sued because it was not “clearly established” that their conduct violated Taylor’s constitutional rights. Taylor went to the Supreme Court in April, asking the justices to clarify what it means for a constitutional violation to be clearly established.
In a brief unsigned opinion on Monday, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th Circuit’s decision, without calling for briefing on the merits or oral argument. The justices acknowledged that qualified immunity protects an official who makes a decision that, “even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.” But in this case, the justices emphasized, “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” The court of appeals, the court noted, did not identify any emergency or other need for the prison officials to hold Taylor in these conditions, and the record in the case suggests that at least some of the officials were well aware of – but ignored – the conditions in the cells: One officer, putting him in a cell that was covered with feces, said to another officer that Taylor would “have a long weekend,” while a second officer, putting Taylor in a “frigidly cold” cell, expressed hope that Taylor would “f***ing freeze.” The justices sent the case back to the lower court to allow Taylor’s lawsuit to move forward.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s decision, although he did not file a separate opinion to explain his vote.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the court’s decision. A Supreme Court spokeswoman indicated that Barrett did not participate in the justices’ private conference last week to give her more time to prepare for oral arguments.
Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate opinion in which he agreed with the court’s disposition of the case but indicated that he found it “hard to understand” why the justices had decided to intervene in Taylor’s case. What Monday’s decision boils down to, Alito contended, is that the Supreme Court “simply disagrees with the Fifth Circuit’s application” of the proper legal test “to the facts of a particular record” – which is not the kind of dispute that the justices normally review.
Having said that, Alito agreed that the 5th Circuit should not have ruled that the prison officials are entitled to immunity from Taylor’s lawsuit. Reading Taylor’s complaint, Alito acknowledged, “a reasonable fact-finder could infer not just that the conditions in the cells in question were horrific but that respondents chose to place and keep him in those particular cells, made no effort to have the cells cleaned, and did not explore the possibility of assignment to cells with better conditions.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.