Tuesday, April 12, 2011

City of Reno v. Conn, 131 S.Ct. 1812 (2011)

Fortunately for those who live within the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court reversed that court's opinion in  Conn v. City of Reno, 591 F.3d 1081 (2010) en banc.  Without repeating the facts of that case in their entirety, two police officers arrested a woman who, on the trip to jail, announced she was going to commit suicide.  At the moment, the announcement was ludicrous although she made a futile attempt to do so. Officers took her to a suicide prevention nurse and the City took other steps to evaluate the threat.  Ultimately she committed suicide while in custody.
Her estate sued under a variety of claims and the 9th Circuit majority found the officers liable on a flimsy  Constitutional basis.  Rather then report the court decision, here are the words of the eight dissenting judges: "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;  DeShaney v. Winnebago Co. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (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."
The State of Nevada sought cert., and the Supreme Court granted the request. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded part of the case (negligent training of officers by municipality (City of Reno v. Conn, 131 S.Ct. 1812. (2011), but in its decision did not reach plaintiff's other claims. On remand from the Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit panel merely reinstated its original decison (591 F.3d 1081 (9th Cir. 2010), vacated the issue of negligent training, remanded  to the district court, and upheld the district court ruling on summary judgment against the City.  The district court may now try the case or hold additional hearings. Another waste of time; Conn v. City of Reno, 2011 WL 404336 (C.A. 9).

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