JAMES MADISON ONCE said that the job of the U.S. Supreme Court was to act as "an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive." Unfortunately, the justices have not always seen their role in the same light. Here are five cases from the past five decades in which a majority of the Court fell down on the job.
Smith v. Maryland (1979)
THE FOURTH AMENDMENT guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." But according to the Supreme Court's 1979 decision in Smith v. Maryland, "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties."
Lawyers call this the third-party doctrine. Prosecutors and police call it the gift that keeps on giving. Let's say the cops want to know what websites you've been reading. The third party doctrine lets them get that information from your internet service provider without obtaining a search warrant first. So much for that pesky Fourth Amendment and the privacy rights it was designed to protect.
Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982)
WHAT DO LIBERTARIAN-LEANING federal Judge Don Willett and liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have in common? They both despise the modern doctrine of qualified immunity.
In Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982), the Supreme Court held that government officials are entitled to immunity from civil suits so long as the specific conduct they're being sued over "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights."
What that means in practice, Willett observed in a 2018 opinion, is that "public officials [can] duck consequences for bad behavior--no matter how palpably unreasonable--as long as they were the first to behave badly."
Sotomayor concurs. The Court's "one-sided approach to qualified immunity," she wrote in a 2018 case, "transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment."
Case in point: In 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit concluded that a Michigan police officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he shot and killed a fleeing suspect. But the court gave the officer qualified immunity anyway, because the situation did not perfectly match anything found in prior case law and therefore "controlling authority at the time of the events had not clearly established the rights we identify today."