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Should Congress Revamp Section 1983?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

In a speech to the Equal Justice Initiative, Retired Justice John Paul Stevens raised serious questions about municipal liability under Section 1983.

A response to a recent decision that overturned a $14 million jury award to a man who wrongfully spent 14 years behind bars, Stevens urged Congress to take action.

In Connick v. Thompson, local prosecutors blatantly violated Thompson's rights under Brady, failing to turn over exculpatory DNA evidence and witness statements.

He sued the local prosecutor's office under Section 1983, arguing that his rights were violated as a result of the office's failure to properly train employees.

The Supreme Court denied recovery, stating that in order to sufficiently demonstrate a failure to train, a defendant must show a pattern of similar violations.

In other words, Thompson couldn't recover because he couldn't prove that the D.A. had previously violated the Brady rights of other defendants.

In his speech, Stevens questions the wisdom of predicating municipal liability on a failure to train, as opposed to the more traditional doctrines of strict liability and respondeat superior.

He points to evidence that this judge-made rule misconstrues Congress' intent and is based on a misunderstanding of history, and proposes that Congress have a serious conversation about updating the law, which promotes prosecutorial misconduct.

His advice?

Municipalities should be subject to traditional notions of respondeat superior, particularly where there are electoral incentives that promote abuse, because it would:

  1. Provide an incentive to properly train employees;
  2. Eliminate costly and drawn out controversies regarding adequate training; and
  3. Lead to a just result in cases such as Thompson's, where a person's rights were clearly violated.

What do you think? Should Congress make municipalities strictly liable for the constitutional violations of their employees? Would justice be better served?

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