Gov Accountability

Cato Institute wins the 2021 North America Liberty Award for campaign to protect civil rights and restore accountability


Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute has been chosen as the winner of the 2021 North America Liberty Award—and its $30,000 prize—for their work to eliminate qualified immunity and restore responsibility and accountability to law enforcement.

Just a few years ago, “qualified immunity” was a term best left to lawyers and legal scholars. Now, it’s a household phrase. Uniting advocacy groups and leaders from across the political spectrum, Cato Institute demonstrated how qualified immunity allows government officials to violate the civil rights of citizens with impunity.

They have been so successful that a 2020 survey by Cato Institute and YouGov found that 63% of Americans favor eliminating the abusive legal loophole, and legislative efforts to ban qualified immunity are picking up steam. Several states—including Colorado and New Mexico—have already banned the legal defense, and bills to that effect have been introduced at the national level by members of Congress representing three political parties. Cato Institute’s efforts to eliminate qualified immunity restore rights to every American and give new energy to the creed “liberty and justice for all.”

“America needs a criminal justice system that lives up to its name, honors the Constitution, and inspires public confidence. But that’s not possible as long as the system holds police and other government officials to a vastly lower standard of accountability than they hold the rest of us,” said Peter Goettler, president and CEO of the Cato Institute. “Eliminating qualified immunity is essential to restoring Americans’ trust in the criminal justice system.”

Since 1982, qualified immunity has allowed government employees, especially police officers, to act with almost no accountability. This Supreme Court invention shields government officials from civil liability in almost every case where they have violated someone’s constitutional rights. To avoid qualified immunity stopping a case in its tracks, a plaintiff must show that their rights were violated in exactly the same way as a previous case in the same jurisdiction. Even if there is no question that a citizen’s rights were indeed infringed, a judge will grant qualified immunity if the case does not meet that very stringent standard. This system provides an enormous legal loophole for police officers, denying justice to victims, and allowing almost all instances of police misconduct to be swept under the rug.

Recognizing that this lack of accountability has led to the death and injury of thousands of Americans, in 2018 Cato Institute—an Atlas Network partner—chose to make the elimination of qualified immunity one of the top goals of its Project on Criminal Justice. To that end, they filed amicus briefs in the courts, met with legislators and their staff, and worked to get the issue in front of the public, making a niche legal concept accessible to everyday Americans.

Cato Institute has intentionally worked across party and ideological lines to build momentum for eliminating qualified immunity. For example, they filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court featuring the ACLU and NAACP; the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Second Amendment Foundation; and the Institute for Justice, the Reason Foundation, and Cato Institute. This striking display of solidarity between starkly different organizations demonstrates a powerful and widely supported opposition to the Supreme Court’s previous holding. Cato Institute has also mobilized cultural figures like athletes and entertainers, business icons, filmmakers, and the owners of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in the movement to defend civil rights and the rule of law.

By every indicator, Cato Institute’s campaign is working.

Survey data indicates that an increasing share of Americans favor abolishing qualified immunity, reaching over 60% in Cato’s most recent research. That momentum is reflected in legislative efforts. Several states have passed laws to eliminate qualified immunity in state courts and increase accountability. Federal lawmakers, including former Rep. Justin Amash (L–MI), Sen. Mike Braun (R–IN), Sen. Cory Booker (D–NJ), and Rep. Karen Bass (D–CA), have introduced accountability legislation at the national level. Judges throughout the U.S. have displayed an increasing skepticism toward qualified immunity, and pressure to overturn the doctrine is mounting on the Supreme Court, which in two recent rulings has displayed a changing attitude on the issue by overturning lower court rulings and supporting civil rights lawsuits against government employees.

For the Cato Institute, building a culture of accountability by eliminating qualified immunity is an essential step toward reversing the crisis of confidence in law enforcement. This legal shield holds those in society with the most authority to the lowest standard when they abuse their power. This has undermined public trust in law enforcement and exempted them from rule of law by creating a legal double standard. Reforming the American criminal justice system by eliminating qualified immunity would both recognize the dignity of—and defend the human and civil rights for—all Americans.

In an effort to increase safety, decrease violent confrontations, and actualize the United States’ commitment to inalienable rights, Cato Institute continues to campaign for ending qualified immunity in more states as well as at the federal level.

The North America Liberty Award will be presented at the 2021 Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner. This exciting event will take place December 13–14 in Miami Beach, Florida, at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. Secure your spot and find more details here.