Last year, an unusually conservative panel of the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion dismissing a black shooting victim’s lawsuit against a white police officer. On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed this decision in a rare order handed down without oral argument or full briefing from the parties. The order is even more rare because the conservative Roberts Court unanimously reversed a lower court from the left.
This case arose out of an incident on New Years Eve in 2008, when a Texas police sergeant named Jeffrey Cotton shot Robbie Tolan. Tolan is professional baseball player and the son of longtime Major Leaguer Bobby Tolan.
Around 2 in the morning on the day of the shooting, another officer ran the license plate of a black SUV that he saw take a turn a little too quickly and then park in front of a house, but the officer miskeyed the plate number — leading his computer to incorrectly tell him that the vehicle was stolen. The cop then exited his car, drew his gun, and ordered the two men who had just exited the SUV to the ground. Soon, Tolan’s parents, who lived in the home where the car was parked, emerged from the house in their pajamas and tried to explain that the car belonged to their family and that no one had committed a crime. Nevertheless, the cop radioed for backup.
Things escalated quickly after Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived at the scene. Tolan and his family claim that Cotton grabbed Tolan’s mother’s arm and slammed her against the garage door with sufficient force that she fell to the ground. They also claim that, while Tolan rose to his knees after this incident, he never stood up or approached the officers. Cotton claims that he used less force on Tolan’s mother and that Tolan rose to his feet. No one disputes what happened next, however. Tolan told Cotton to “get your fucking hands off my mom” — and then Cotton drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. Though Tolan survived, the bullets collapsed his right lung and pierced his liver.
After Tolan sued Cotton, his case wound up in front of a very conservative panel of the Fifth Circuit. Judges Edith Jones and Rhesa Barksdale once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that his lawyer slept through much of his trial. Judge Leslie Southwick once joined a court decision upholding the reinstatement of a white state worker who was fired for calling a black colleague a “good ole n*igger.” These three judges ruled in favor of Cotton.
As the Supreme Court explained on Monday, however, Jones, Barksdale and Southwick bungled this decision. In federal courts, a party which believes that there are no real factual disputes in a case can seek something called “summary judgment” The court considering a request for summary judgement, however, must view all evidence “in the light most favorable” to the party that isn’t seeking such a judgment. Essentially, in order to win a summary judgment, a party must show that they would win their case even if every factual issue in the case were decided against them.
Yet, as the justices explain in an unsigned order, that’s not what happened in Tolan’s case. Cotton claimed that the Tolans’ porch was “dimly-lit,” that Tolan’s mother did not remain calm, that Tolan stood up and that he was ‘verbally threatening” — and that these facts justified a spur of the moment decision to shoot. Even if all of these facts are true, however, it is not the job of the Fifth Circuit to assume that they are true before the case is even tried. In the words of the Supreme Court, “[t]he witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases. It is in part for that reason that genuine disputes are generally resolved by juries in our adversarial system.”
The upshot of this the Supreme Court’s opinion is that the Fifth Circuit will have to try again. Tolan could still lose, but he is entitled to have his case considered under the proper legal standard first.