Lessons for Bivens and Qualified Immunity Debates from Nineteenth-Century Damages Litigation Against Federal Officers
This Essay was written for a symposium marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As the current Court has turned against Bivens—seemingly confining it to three specific contexts created by Bivens and two follow-on decisions in 1979 and 1980—scholars and litigants have developed a set of claims to respond to the Court’s critique. The Court now views the judicially created Bivens cause of action and remedy as a separation-of-powers foul; Congress is said to be the institution which should weigh the costs and benefits of allowing constitutional tort suits against federal officers for damages, especially in areas like national security or foreign affairs in which the political branches might be thought to have constitutional primacy. Scholarly writing and litigation briefs critical of the Court’s treatment of Bivens now frequently focus on damages suits under common law or general law against American government officers in the early republic, reading them as giving Bivens a quasi-originalist pedigree. This historical writing about officer damages suits claims that courts in the early republic: acted independently of Congress to impose significant restraints on federal officers; protected persons from federal overreach no matter their citizenship and territorial location, and even during wartime; and refused to grant anything like qualified immunity that might have softened the blow of strict personal liability and promoted government efficiency. Common-law damages suits against federal officers are said to have remained routinely available until after Bivens was decided when, in the 1988 Westfall Act, Congress barred state-law tort suits against federal officers acting within the scope of their employment.
Through case studies of litigation against federal officers involved in customs enforcement and maritime seizures, this Essay qualifies and revises these claims. In those two contexts, I show that there was substantial political branch endorsement of personal damages liability of federal officers in the early republic, but as material and legal conditions changed over the nineteenth century, Congress moved away from officer suits as a means of ensuring accountability of federal officers and compensation of persons harmed by official illegality. Further, in high stakes contexts for the young republic—wartime prize seizures and peacetime antipiracy seizures—the Supreme Court did in fact apply immunity doctrines to protect officers and incentivize vigor. Finally, alien enemy disability to sue in U.S. courts during wartime must be acknowledged as a significant limit the protective reach of the officer damages suit. I conclude with thoughts about the implications of this somewhat revised view of the history of damages litigation against federal officers.