The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that individuals may personally seek damages from a federal officer who violates their civil rights and causes harm.
The case centered on FBI officials putting three Muslims on the no-fly list after they “refused to cooperate with the FBI by spying on their own communities.”
According to the Institute for Justice, which submitted arguments in the case, because of their refusal to spy, “these individuals were placed on the No-Fly List, which caused significant hardship, such as the inability to travel to visit family or for work.”
They sued, and now the Supreme Court has ruled the federal officials responsible could be liable for damages.
“We first have to determine if injured parties can sue government officials in their personal capacities. [The Religious Freedom Restoration Act]’s text provides a clear answer: They can. Persons may sue and obtain relief ‘against a government,’ which is defined to include ‘a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States,” the opinion said.
New Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling, but it was decided unanimously by the other eight.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion.
“Not surprisingly, in the lawsuit against the FBI agents, the government argued that the words ‘appropriate relief’ do not include damages,” the Institute for Justice said. “According to the government, damages might be an appropriate remedy against private actors, but damages should not be allowed if the person who violated your rights happens to work for the government.”
Its friend-of-the-court brief argued damages against government officials are the historical cornerstone of government accountability. It contended damages are often the only way to vindicate constitutional rights and that none of the government’s policy justifications against damages have a basis in reality.
That essentially was the ruling of the court.
“In the context of suits against government officials, damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief,” the ruling said, including local, state and federal officials in the decision.
The court pointed out damages are often the only remedy available.
“The court today has provided its full-throated endorsement of damages as a necessary and historic mechanism for constitutional accountability,” noted Scott Bullock, IJ’s president and general counsel. “In doing so, the court also reiterated its support for the foundational principles of this country, such as that damages can be awarded to check the government’s power and that it is Congress’ job to engage in policy making. The court’s job is to interpret the law, not to do policy.”
The plaintiffs were Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari. They alleged the FBI put them on a No-Fly List for refusing to act as informants against their religious communities.
They lost money, wasted airline tickets and lost income from job opportunities.
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