High court rules local officials can't be sued over laws Decision clarifies use of 1871 civil rights law

March 04, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, answering a question left open for more than 120 years, ruled unanimously yesterday that city and county officials cannot be sued under federal law for writing local laws that violate someone's civil rights.

The ruling extends to local officials a shield of immunity that has long protected members of Congress and state legislatures. Local legislators, too, need insulation from the distractions and costs of lawsuits based on their lawmaking activity, the court said.

In addition to members of city councils or county commissions, the new immunity applies to mayors and other local executive officials who contribute to legislation by proposing measures or signing them into law, the court said.

"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," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The decision means that by virtue of proposing legislation or enacting it into law, local officials may not be sued for damages under an 1871 federal civil rights law, even if the officials intended to cause harm.

Local officials will remain liable, however, for civil rights lawsuits resulting from their administrative actions, such as hiring and firing individual workers, the court indicated. Nor will the ruling protect them from any liability they might face under state or local law; the court's decision was based solely on the federal law.

The ruling wipes out $231,000 in damages that a city employee in Fall River, Mass., had won against the mayor and a city councilwoman for their role in passing an ordinance that abolished her job.

The city employee, who is black, claimed that the ordinance was intended to retaliate against her for disciplinary action she took against a white staff member for using racist language against her.

Brian O'Neill, a city councilman in Philadelphia and president of the National League of Cities, said the court's ruling will "assure that our city halls and county courthouses are open forums for elected leaders to examine issues, discuss ideas and cast votes."

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in 1993 that city and county legislators have such immunity under state common law. The state attorney general has taken the same position since issuing an advisory ruling in 1994.

The Supreme Court, in a separate unanimous decision yesterday, ruled that doctors who lose malpractice cases need not pay the damage verdicts if they go bankrupt. The ruling will also apply to lawyers, architects and other professionals and probably to anyone who is sued after causing harm to others, according to bankruptcy experts.

The court made clear that bankruptcy would protect the person sued if the harm that produces the debt was a result of negligence or recklessness. The debt will have to be paid if the damage was done intentionally or if the harm resulted from drunken driving.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision in a case involving a $355,040 verdict that a woman in Hawaii won from a doctor in a malpractice case.

The woman claimed that she lost a leg after the doctor treated a foot injury with the wrong drugs. The doctor was uninsured, so his bankruptcy filing will wipe out the debt.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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