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H.R. 7115 (116th): Restoration of Civil Rights Act of 2019

The Restoration of Civil Rights Act would implement several reforms to lawsuits or prosecutions involving American policing and law enforcement, including:

  • Eliminating the “qualified immunity” defense for law enforcement. In theory, qualified immunity is a doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for money damages for constitutional violations under federal law, so long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law. In practice, it’s been increasingly interpreted by courts to allow immunity from a wide range of lawsuits, including excessive force by police. (The defense is actually not an issue with the officers involved with George Floyd’s death, yet still ranks among the top police reforms sought by many criminal justice advocates.)
  • Explicitly granting the right to sue a state or state official for a federal constitutional violation. Such lawsuits are mostly banned by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, although a few limited exceptions currently exist.
  • If a local U.S. attorney working on behalf of the Justice Department in a certain jurisdiction refuses to prosecute a case, the bill allows another Justice Department attorney from another jurisdiction to potentially prosecute it instead. This issue came up in 2019, when New York prosecutors declined to prosecute police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

It was introduced in the House on June 4 as bill number H.R. 7115, by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX33).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the legislation includes several reforms to better represent victims in lawsuits involving law enforcement.

“George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are just the latest victims of rogue policing that has taken numerous lives of black and brown people across our country for many years,” Rep. Veasey said in a press release. “This legislation seeks to end this unjustified police violence and save lives by eliminating qualified immunity — a move that will eliminate the shield officers have from accountability in instances of police brutality and excessive force.”

What opponents say

While GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition to the bill in totality, likely because it’s so new, certain elements such as the qualified immunity provision have engendered opposition individually.

In the 1982 case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court held in an 8–1 decision that qualified immunity was a necessary provision to prevent a range of ills, including chilling law enforcement and excessive court costs.

“Claims frequently run against the innocent, as well as the guilty — at a cost not only to the defendant officials, but to society as a whole,” Justice Powell wrote in the majority opinion. “These social costs include the expenses of litigation, the diversion of official energy from pressing public issues, and the deterrence of able citizens from acceptance of public office. Finally, there is the danger that fear of being sued will dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible [public officials], in the unflinching discharge of their duties.”

As a result, Powell contended, some level of qualified immunity was necessary: “If the law at that time was not clearly established, an official could not reasonably be expected to anticipate subsequent legal developments, nor could he fairly be said to ‘know’ that the law forbade conduct not previously identified as unlawful.”

Odds of passage

The bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors, although some of its provisions will likely be incorporated into more comprehensive legislation introduced by House Democrats.

It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee, though odds of passage are low in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Another similar bill that would only limit qualified immunity, without the additional reforms of this bill, was introduced on June 4 as bill number H.R. 7085, by Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI3).

Last updated Jun 10, 2020. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jun 4, 2020.

Restoration of Civil Rights Act of 2019

This bill expands remedies under provisions regarding civil actions for deprivation of rights under color of law.

Specifically, the bill provides that

any person against whom such an action is filed for an act or omission taken in the person's official capacity may not raise as a defense that such act or omission did not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right; in any action filed in which a person is held liable for an act or omission taken in the person's official capacity, any state or territory (including the District of Columbia) of which the person is an employee shall be vicariously liable if the act or omission of the person is attributable to violations of the Fourteenth Amendment by the state or territory; any person who is an employee or contractor of a state or territory and is found to be liable for acts or omissions occurring in the course and scope of such person's employment or agreement is entitled to indemnification if the act or omission is taken in the person's official capacity and attributable to violations of the Fourteenth Amendment by the state or territory; and a U.S. Attorney may bring a civil action for a violation on behalf of any U.S. citizen or other person within the jurisdiction before the appropriate federal district court for appropriate relief.