Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conn v. City of Reno, et al, 591 F.3d 1081 (9th Cir. 2010)

The citation for the original opinion is Conn v. City of Reno, 572 F.3d 1047 (9th Cir. 2009) This dissenting opinion (Conn v. City of Reno, et al) was published on January 8, 2010. Although the the facts are unfortunate, their recitation is not the issue. Police detained an intoxicated woman who committed suicide subsequent to her release from civil detention. The family sued the arresting officers and the City of Reno in federal court under U.S.C. 1983. Both asserted qualified immunity in a motion for summary judgment but the Ninth Circuit three judge panel denied their defense. The dissent is important because of its criticism of the role of police mandated by the panel and judicial imposition of duties imposed on the City at the expense of individual responsibility. The dissenting judges wrote in response to a petition for a hearing en banc: "Until this opinion came along, police officers weren't required to serve as babysitters, psychiatrists or social workers, and judges didn't run suicide-prevention programs. Responsibility for preventing suicide rested with the individual and the family, not the state. But the panel has discovered that the Constitution demands a change in job description: Judges will henceforth micromanage the police, who in turn will serve as mental health professionals. The panel's reasoning has no stopping point, and our decision to let it stand threatens unprecedented judicial intervention in our local institutions." "At bottom, this case raises the question of whether the state has a legal (as opposed to moral) obligation to provide for the health of its citizens. We have repeatedly rejected the idea that such an obligation exists. See, e.g., DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 200 (1989). This is in part because the benevolent welfare state is in tension with our tradition of liberty and individual dignity: What the state provides for you, you do not provide for yourself, and as the sphere of public largesse grows, the realm of private initiative retreats. It also reflects a judgment that any redefinition of the role of the state should occur under the supervision of democratically elected officials, not unaccountable federal judges. States may obligate themselves, but they should not have novel duties thrust upon them by judicial fiat." "In the panel's hands, standards that are meant to limit liability to all but the most extreme cases become tools for imposing the policy preferences of unelected federal judges. This combination of errors amounts to a toxic recipe for judicial micromanagement of local institutions." And that last comment is at the heart of the issue. Once again a Ninth Circuit imposes policy preferences with no precedent in support of a decision clearly headed for the Supreme Court.

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