“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy argued that former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should be legally immune from any liability for the significant damages caused by the Flint water poisoning crisis. The Sixth Circuit majority rejected that view and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings in a class action against Snyder and other officials in its May 2020 decision in In re Flint Water Cases.
In 2014-15, State of Michigan and City of Flint officials “caused, maintained, and covered up the poisoning of an entire community with lead- and legionella-contaminate water,” causing death, illness, and other harm. City residents and other individuals who were harmed by the poisoned water filed a class action in federal court against those officials, contending that their “deliberate indifference” to the people’s poisoning “violated their substantive due process right to bodily integrity,” a constitutional claim recognized by the Sixth Circuit in Guertin v. Michigan despite dissents by several Trump and other judges.
Snyder and other officials argued that they should receive qualified immunity to protect them from any such liability. The district court denied their claims in a motion to dismiss, and they appealed.
The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to most officials, but Trump judge Murphy, who had dissented in the Guertin case, argued that before trial or even any discovery, the court should grant qualified immunity to Snyder as a matter of law. He claimed that Snyder and former State Treasurer Andrew Dillon’s conduct was “too far removed from the crisis” to be hold them liable. Even though Snyder specifically approved the transfer of Flint’s water supply to the Flint river that caused the poisoning, Murphy asserted, the complaint does not “plausibly allege facts” suggesting that his approval was “callously indifferent to a then-known risk of harm.”
Although the Sixth Circuit majority agreed to remand Dillon’s immunity claim in light of a different decision involving him, it strongly rejected Murphy’s assertion that Snyder should be held immune as a matter of law without even any discovery. As the majority explained, the complaint maintained that Snyder “personally was aware” about the contamination of Flint River water and then “personally made the decision to switch the city” to Flint River water. The complaint further maintained, the majority went on, that Snyder then “personally understood” that Flint residents “were being poisoned,” but “downplayed the problem and delayed taking action to protect the people of Flint,” including waiting “three months” after the water supply was switched away from the Flint river to declare a state of emergency. As the majority concluded, the complaint’s allegations about Snyder’s role in “creating, failing to mitigate, and covering up” the water crisis “plausibly demonstrates deliberate indifference” for which he can be held liable.
In too many cases, Trump judges have voted to grant qualified immunity to police officers and other public officials who cause serious harm. In this case, Trump judge Eric Murphy would have immunized a former governor for knowingly helping to poison Flint’s water and cause death and disease to its predominantly Black and low-income residents. Fortunately, Murphy’s view was rejected, and the case against Snyder and other officials will proceed.