DAVID R. CLEVELAND, Nova Southeastern University – Shepard Broad Law Center
Denying precedential status to unpublished opinions muddles the already unclear law surrounding qualified immunity. Government officials may claim qualified immunity as a defense to claims that they have violated a person’s civil rights. The test is whether they have violated “clearly established law.” The federal circuits differ on whether unpublished opinions may be used in determining clearly established law. This article, Clear as Mud: How the Uncertain Precedential Status of Unpublished Opinions Muddles Qualified Immunity Determinations, argues that unpublished opinions are ideal sources for determining what law is clearly established. The article reviews the purpose of both civil rights actions against government officials and the qualified immunity defense available to such officials. It also analyzes the characteristics of unpublished opinions and finds them, by definition, to be ideal sources to help determine the clearly established law. It then examines the circuit courts’ variation in the use of unpublished opinions in their qualified immunity analyses. Finally, it proposes a resolution to this problematic circuit split through jurisprudential or rulemaking means. Opinions that are issued as unpublished are by definition clearly established law; opinions that make new law or expand or contract existing law must be published under the federal circuit rules. Denying precedential status to unpublished opinions has relegated these opinions to a second class status, which is unjustified and unconstitutional, but also obfuscates their inherent suitability to demonstrate clearly established law.
Source: LSN Law & Courts Vol. 3 No. 59, 09/07/2009