Swint v. Chambers County Commission, et. al
Decided on Mar. 1, 1995; 514 US 35


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal justice (drugs), 11th Amendment, jurisdiction

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Given the Eleventh Circuit's jurisdiction to review immediately the District Court's refusal to grant summary judgment for the defendants in response to their pleas of qualified immunity, did the Circuit Court also have jurisdiction to review at once the denial of the county commission's summary judgment motion?

A. Background:

On December 14, 1990, and again on March 29, 1991, law enforcement officers from Chambers County and the city of Wadley, Alabama, raided the Capri Club in Chambers County as part of a narcotics operation. The raids were conducted without a search warrant or an arrest warrant. Petitioners filed suit, alleging violations of their federal civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, making, inter alia, any person involved in the deprivation of another person's constitutional rights, liable to the injured party for redress. Petitioners named as defendants the county commission; the city of Wadley; and three individual defendants, Chambers County Sheriff James C. Morgan, Wadley Police Chief Freddie Morgan, and Wadley Police Officer Gregory Dendinger.

All defendants filed a motion in the
District Court for the Middle District of Alabama for summary judgment. The three individual defendants asserted qualified immunity on the grounds that governmental officials are immune from suit for civil damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, unless their conduct is unreasonable in light of clearly established law. The Chambers County Commission argued that County Sheriff James C. Morgan, who authorized the raids, was not a policymaker for the county, and the city (Wadley) argued it could not be held liable under the statute's rules.

With an interlocutory order, the District Court denied the motion for summary judgment. Invoking the rule that an order denying qualified immunity is appealable before trial, the defendants immediately made appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the Chambers County Commission qualified for summary judgment because the sheriff who authorized the raids was a state executive officer and not an agent of the county commission.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Michael H. Gottesman argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Steven D. Caley, Susan C. Jamieson, and David A. Webster.

Also, Paul M. Smith argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief for respondent Chambers County Commission were Bruce J. Ennis, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., James W Webb, Kendrick E. Webb, and Bart Harmon.
Robert B. McDuff argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Carlos A. Williams, Bryan Stevenson, and Bernard Harcourt.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for Jefferson County, Alabama, by Charles S. Wagner; and for the National Association of Counties et al. by Richard Ruda.

Mitchell F. Dolin, T. Jeremy Gunn, Steven R. Shapiro, Michael A. Cooper, Herbert J. Hansell, Norman Redlich, Thomas J. Henderson, and Sharon R. Vinick also filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amici curiae.

Note: The ACLU's brief supported the merits of the petitioners' case, but was never reached by the Court because of its jurisdictional holding.
J. Michael McGuinness filed a brief for the Southern States Police Benevolent Association as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Also, Paul R. Q. Wolfson argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae in support of petitioners. On the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, Beth S. Brinkmann, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Linda F. Thome.

"[There are] statutory instructions Congress has given to control the timing of appellate proceedings. The main rule on review of 'final decisions,' is followed by prescriptions for appeals from 'interlocutory decisions'... This case indicates how the initial discretion Congress lodged in district courts under § 1292(b) could be circumvented by the 'liberal' or 'flexible' approach petitioners and respondent prefer. The District Court here ruled only tentatively on the county commission's motion and apparently contemplated receipt of further evidence from the parties before ruling definitively...

Congress' designation of the rule-making process as the way to define or refine when a district court ruling is 'final' and when an interlocutory order is appealable warrants the Judiciary's full respect...

Two decisions of this Court securely support the conclusion that the Eleventh Circuit lacked jurisdiction instantly to review the denial of the county commission's summary judgment motion: Abney v. United States, 431 U. S. 651 (1977), and United States v. Stanley, 483 U. S. 669 (1987). In Abney, we permitted appeal before trial of an order denying a motion to dismiss an indictment on double jeopardy grounds. Immediate appeal of that ruling, we held, fit within the Cohen collateral order doctrine... But we further held that the Court of Appeals lacked authority to review simultaneously the trial court's rejection of the defendant's challenge to the sufficiency of the indictment...

Held: The Eleventh Circuit lacked jurisdiction to rule on the county commission's liability at this interlocutory stage of the litigation and, accordingly, should have dismissed the commission's appeal. We therefore vacate the relevant portion of the Eleventh Circuit's judgment and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Ginsberg, R. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined minority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined minority opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the ruling of the Eleventh Circuit Court in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.