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It's now easier for judges to determine immunity for public officials

The US Supreme Court rules in the case of an alleged drug dealer in Utah.

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The US Supreme Court has made it easier for federal judges to determine whether public officials can be held liable for violating someone's constitutional rights.

In a unanimous decision announced on Wednesday, the high court eased a mandatory procedure it imposed on judges in a 2001 decision called Saucier v. Katz.

At issue was a judicial test designed to determine when or if public officials are to be protected by qualified immunity from private lawsuits.

Public officials are generally shielded from lawsuits seeking damages for alleged wrongs resulting from official actions. But they are not protected from lawsuits when their actions violate someone's clearly established constitutional rights.

Under the 2001 Saucier decision, the high court required judges to follow a two-step procedure when assessing whether a particular official would enjoy the protections of qualified immunity. First, the judge must determine whether the facts as alleged in the case are a violation of a constitutional right.

Next, once the first step is satisfied, the judge must determine whether the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of the alleged misconduct.

If the answer to that question is yes, the official loses his or her qualified immunity.

That procedure was the law of the land until Wednesday, when the court announced that it was reconsidering the required sequence of the test.

"While the sequence set forth [in the Saucier decision] is often appropriate, it should no longer be regarded as mandatory," Justice Samuel Alito writes in the unanimous 20-page opinion.

"The judges of the district courts and the courts of appeals should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand," Justice Alito writes.


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