June 28, 2007
The most fundamental duty of the federal courts is to overrule and remedy governmental violations of the Constitution. In some cases, an award of damages is the only adequate remedy available, or even the only possible remedy of any kind. Consider, for example, the case of an innocent man victimized by an unconstitutional search or seizure. The standard remedy of the exclusionary rule is useless to him – at least if he is going to be acquitted anyway. The only feasible way to compensate him for the violation of his rights is an award of damages.
In some cases, other remedies are available, but they are not sufficient to fully remedy the violation of the victim’s rights. The Wilkie majority opinion concedes (and Thomas and Scalia do not dispute) that this was true in Wilkie itself. In such situations, it is axiomatic that the courts have a duty to provide a remedy that fully compensates the victim for the violation of his constitutional rights. Any other approach is both unjust to the victim and provides poor incentives for the government by allowing it to avoid bearing the full cost of its actions.
Justices Thomas and Scalia seem to believe that judicial decisions ordering a damages remedy somehow constitute judicial policymaking in a way that decisions ordering other kinds of remedies do not. I agree that damage remedies are sometimes unwise and often inferior to other available remedies. However, I don’t see why a damage remedy is inherently more “activist” or more intrusive on the powers of the political branches than alternative remedies such as injunctive relief or facial invalidation of a statute – remedies that Thomas and Scalia consider to be perfectly legitimate. In many cases, an injunction or invalidation of a statute will actually constrain the political branches more than damage payments do.
By all appearances, we need more remedies for illegal conduct by officials. And if damages are inappropriate, Congress can always legislate an appropriate scheme.