Harlow v. Fitzgerald
Annotate this Case
457 U.S. 800 (1982)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)
Harlow v. Fitzgerald
Argued November 30, 1981
Decided June 24, 1982
457 U.S. 800
In respondent's civil damages action in Federal District Court based on his alleged unlawful discharge from employment in the Department of the Air Force, petitioners, White House aides to former President Nixon, were codefendants with him and were claimed to have participated in the same alleged conspiracy to violate respondent's constitutional and statutory rights as was involved in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante p. 457 U. S. 731. After extensive pretrial discovery, the District Court denied the motions of petitioners and the former President for summary judgment, holding, inter alia, that petitioners were not entitled to absolute immunity from suit. Independently of the former President, petitioners appealed the denial of their immunity defense, but the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal.
1. Government officials whose special functions or constitutional status requires complete protection from suits for damages -- including certain officials of the Executive Branch, such as prosecutors and similar officials, see Butz v. Economou, 438 U. S. 478, and the President, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante p. 457 U. S. 731 -- are entitled to the defense of absolute immunity. However, executive officials in general are usually entitled to only qualified or good faith immunity. The recognition of a qualified immunity defense for high executives reflects an attempt to balance competing values: not only the importance of a damages remedy to protect the rights of citizens, but also the need to protect officials who are required to exercise discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U. S. 232. Federal officials seeking absolute immunity from personal liability for unconstitutional conduct must bear the burden of showing that public policy requires an exemption of that scope. Pp. 457 U. S. 806-808.
2. Public policy does not require a blanket recognition of absolute immunity for Presidential aides. Cf. Butz, supra. Pp. 457 U. S. 808-813.
(a) The rationale of Gravel v. United States, 408 U. S. 606 -- which held the Speech and Debate Clause derivatively applicable to the "legislative acts" of a Senator's aide that would have been privileged if performed by the Senator himself -- does not mandate "derivative" absolute
immunity for the President's chief aides. Under the "functional" approach to immunity law, immunity protection extends no further than its justification warrants. Pp. 457 U. S. 809-811.
(b) While absolute immunity might be justified for aides entrusted with discretionary authority in such sensitive areas as national security or foreign policy, a "special functions" rationale does not warrant a blanket recognition of absolute immunity for all Presidential aides in the performance of all their duties. To establish entitlement to absolute immunity, a Presidential aide first must show that the responsibilities of his office embraced a function so sensitive as to require a total shield from liability. He then must demonstrate that he was discharging the protected function when performing the act for which liability is asserted. Under the record in this case, neither petitioner has made the requisite showing for absolute immunity. However, the possibility that petitioners, on remand, can satisfy the proper standards is not foreclosed. Pp. 457 U. S. 811-813.
3. Petitioners are entitled to application of the qualified immunity standard that permits the defeat of insubstantial claims without resort to trial. Pp. 457 U. S. 813-820.
(a) The previously recognized "subjective" aspect of qualified or "good faith" immunity -- whereby such immunity is not available if the official asserting the defense "took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury," Wood v. Strickland, 420 U. S. 308, 420 U. S. 322 -- frequently has proved incompatible with the principle that insubstantial claims should not proceed to trial. Henceforth, government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Pp. 457 U. S. 815-819.
(b) The case is remanded for the District Court's reconsideration of the question whether respondent's pretrial showings were insufficient to withstand petitioners' motion for summary judgment. Pp. 457 U. S. 819-820.
Vacated and remanded.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 457 U. S. 820. BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., filed a separate concurring statement, post, p. 457 U. S. 821. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 457 U. S. 822. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 457 U. S. 822.