CCL President Robert S. Peck described landmines that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions placed in the path of civil rights advocates in remarks made at the meeting of the Civil Rights Section of the American Association for Justice on July 9 in Denver, Colorado. 

     Peck began his talk by describing the impact that Justice Kennedy's retirement was likely to have, with the certainty being that the new nominee will be a more doctrinaire conservative. Peck likened Justice Kennedy's civil rights record to Thomas Paine's sunshine patriot, who comfortably stakes out a favorable position when the wind is blowing in that direction, but retreats when more heavy lifting is required. Peck said that the distinction often played out on issues of race. In making that case, Peck contrasted the Court's treatment of religious liberty in Masterpiece Cakeshop and its emphasis on the animus expressed in two of the five Colorado commissioners statements with the dismissal of more tethered animus from the president in connection with the Court's deference in the Travel Ban case.

     Peck also highlighted the uneven treatment often afforded those whose civil rights were violated because of the qualified immunity doctrine. There, unless the violation is clearly established before the violation takes place, the misbehavior is excused, essentially allowing one free violation -- as long as the case bothers to label the misconduct as a violation. Even though a prior case need not be on all fours with the current misconduct, and courts regularly recite that standard, it is rarely applied. Peck also highlighted a pending petition to the Supreme Court on qualified immunity, Allah v. Milling, that has attracted an unusual set of amicus supporters that span the ideological spectrum and urged his audience to watch that space.

     Peck also described the Court's recent interest in proximate cause in applying civil rights statutes. The standard applicable in civil rights remains in flux, but could trip up an otherwise meritorious case.