Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that in rare cases such claims had been allowed to proceed without the express permission of Congress and that the court should not question lawmakers charged with deciding when individuals can seek damages for constitutional violations.
“Because our cases have made it clear that in all but the most unusual circumstances, prescribing a cause of action is a job for Congress, not the courts, we reverse,” wrote Thomas, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote separately in agreement with the judgment.
Dissenting, the court’s three liberal justices said they would have allowed the Washington state man’s lawsuit to proceed against the federal agent. Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court “absolutely immunized thousands of Border Patrol agents from liability” regardless of the severity of the misconduct or resulting injuries.
Such cases “play a critical role in deterring unconstitutional behavior by federal law enforcement officers,” wrote Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Judges find parents of Mexican teenager killed by Border Patrol agent can’t sue in US courts
The case was brought in 2017 by Robert Boule, owner of Smuggler’s Inn, a bed and breakfast located in Washington State, along the Canadian border. Boule had a complicated relationship with federal agents, according to the court’s opinion. He sometimes served as a paid confidential informant, helping officers identify people crossing the border illegally near his property. He also provided accommodation and shuttle service to those crossing illegally, driving a black SUV with the “SMUGLER” license plate.
Officers had seized shipments of illegal drugs from the hostel, it is believed, and Boule was recently convicted in a Canadian court of human trafficking.
Boule sued a Border Patrol agent whom he accused of illegally entering his property, shoving and shoving him to the ground during a 2014 encounter involving a guest of Boule from Turkey. The officer, Erik Egbert, checked the guest’s immigration papers, which were up to date, and the guest illegally crossed the Canadian border that evening, the court ruled. Boule alleged that the officer violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force and exacting revenge on Boule for complaining to the officer’s superiors.
At the center of the case is a 1971 decision in Bivens c. Six unknown named agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in which the Supreme Court recognized that federal officers can be sued in certain cases, even if such suits had not been explicitly authorized by Congress.
But since then, the court has moved to restrict when individuals can bring such federal lawsuits. Two years ago, a split court ruled that the family of a Mexican teenager killed by a Border Patrol agent in a cross-border shooting could not sue in US courts. Previously, the court ruled in 2017 that senior US government officials could not be held responsible for the alleged unconstitutional treatment of non-citizens detained after 9/11.
Supreme Court says US officials cannot be held responsible for alleged unconstitutional treatment of non-citizens
Sotomayor wrote in his dissent that the majority on Wednesday rewrote and extended its own legal standard “beyond recognition” to “close the door on Boule’s claim.” The conduct in question, she noted, took place on US soil and the injury was inflicted on a US citizen.
“This matter does not remotely involve national security,” she wrote, adding that “Congress did not provide for federal law enforcement officers to enter private property near ‘a border at any time or for any purpose’.
But Thomas said the reasoning from previous national security rulings applied to Boule’s case because the Border Patrol agent was fulfilling his duty to prevent people from illegally entering or leaving the United States. Boule, he said, had other avenues to address his concerns about the officer’s conduct and noted that he filed a complaint that led to a year-long internal investigation.
The majority abstained from annulling Bivensbut Gorsuch wrote separately to stress that the court should not leave the false impression that future claims will be viable.
“Weighing the costs and benefits of new laws is the daily bread of legislative committees. It has no place in federal courts charged with deciding cases and controversies under applicable law,” he wrote.
The court’s decision overturns a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Egbert’s attorney argued that allowing Boule’s claims would compromise the ability of Border Patrol agents to conduct searches as part of their immigration responsibilities. The Biden administration backed the agent’s position.
Steven A. Engel, an attorney who filed a brief in support of Egbert on behalf of former U.S. attorneys general in Republican administrations, said the court was correct.
“The plaintiff here could point to no federal law authorizing his lawsuit, and therefore the Court correctly reaffirmed the constitutional principle that the power to create such legal remedies rests with Congress,” Engel said in an email Wednesday.
Boule’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In documents filed with the courts, Boule said his claims did not raise national security or immigration concerns and merely sought to remedy the misconduct against him.
The case is Egbert v. Ball.