In a victory for individual rights, the Supreme Court ruled – unanimously – that people can sue the government for damages when it violates their constitutional rights.

The Institute for Justice offers some background on the case, which:

…involved FBI agents who retaliated against Muslim-Americans and green-card holders who followed the dictates of their faith and refused to cooperate with the FBI by spying on their own communities. As a result of their refusal to cooperate, these individuals were placed on the No Fly List, which caused significant hardship, such as the inability to travel to visit family or for work. Luckily, Congress provided a statutory authorization to sue for violations of religious rights, allowing a plaintiff to receive “appropriate relief against the government.”

Not surprisingly, in the lawsuit against the FBI agents, the government argued that the words “appropriate relief” do not include damages. According to the government, damages might be an appropriate remedy against private actors, but damages should not be allowed if the person who violated your rights happens to work for the government.

Writing for the Court Justice Clarence Thomas said:

The Government also posits that we should be wary of damages against government officials because these awards could raise separation-of-powers concerns. But this exact remedy has coexisted with our constitutional system since the dawn of the Republic. To be sure, there may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield Government employees from personal liability, and Congress is free to do so. But there are no constitutional reasons why we must do so in its stead.

To the extent the Government asks us to create a new policy-based presumption against damages against individual officials, we are not at liberty to do so. Congress is best suited to create such a policy. Our task is simply to interpret the law as an ordinary person would. Although background presumptions can inform the understanding of a word or phrase, those presumptions must exist at the time of enactment. We cannot manufacture a new presumption now and retroactively impose it on a Congress that acted 27 years ago.

Government officials, then, are not above the law and can be held accountable for knowingly violating individuals’  constitutional rights. That should be common sense. But sometimes, it takes the highest court in the land to make such fundamental points clear.

Image Credit: Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons