Section 1983: The Law Behind A Civil Rights Suit By Dylan Hosmer-Quint*

*Case Law Ltd. Extern and Harvard Law School Student, Class of 2023

More than 150 years ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Included in the law was Section 1983, which remains a core mechanism for protecting against government misconduct today. When Congress passed Section 1983, the primary purpose of the law was to protect Black Americans from white supremacy within state and local governments and, in particular, the Ku Klux Klan. The idea is intuitive – government officials, like police, prison wardens, school administrators, and others, have a unique power over people’s lives. When police use excessive force, prisons deny medical care, or schools discriminate, people need a remedy. In many cases, Section 1983 is the remedy.

Section 1983 works by giving individuals the right to sue government officials when their rights are violated. The text of the law reads, in part, “Every person who, under color of any statute . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured . . .” (Here’s the whole law.) 

The Text:

Let’s take a closer look at the text of Section 1983.

“Every person who, under color of [law]. . .”

The first part of Section 1983 addresses the law to government officials. The phrase “under color” of law means that the wrongdoer has to be a representative of the government in some capacity.

“. . . subjects, or causes to be subjected . . .”

The second portion of Section 1983 means that to sue someone, they must have been the cause of the problem. There can be multiple people who “caused” the violation of rights. For example, in a case of police brutality, the individual officer or officers directly caused the violence. But potentially also the police chief, who supervised and trained the officers, or the city, which hired the officers.

“. . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . .”

Section 1983 allows individuals to sue when their rights are violated. Those rights come from the Constitution and federal laws. For example, the Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures. When police use excessive force, that’s considered an unreasonable seizure. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “equal protection” under the law. When government officials discriminate on the basis of race, that violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

While Section 1983 allows people to enforce all these rights, it does not itself create any rights. In other words, Section 1983 is a tool for protecting other rights.

“. . . shall be liable to the party injured . . .”

The simple text of Section 1983 makes government officials liable if they violate your rights. Of course, it’s rarely that simple. But every once in a while, it’s worth remembering that the actual text of the law is pretty straightforward.

When it works . . . and when it doesn’t:

Section 1983 remains one of the most powerful tools for people to protect their rights against the government. It’s routinely used by civil rights lawyers to seek justice in cases of excessive force, unconstitutional arrests, and other government misconduct.

But over time, the Supreme Court has narrowed the power of Section 1983. In particular, the doctrine of qualified immunity makes it difficult to sue government officials. Qualified immunities protect government officials unless they violate “clearly established law.” The problem is, that courts interpret “clearly established law” very narrowly – civil rights lawyers must show that the government official was on notice that their particular conduct violated the law. Many have even called for the doctrine to be abolished by federal law.

Even as the reach of Section 1983 is under attack, the law has a proud place in the history of our nation’s battle for civil rights. It’s still a powerful tool, and one we should vigorously defend in court, and in Congress if necessary.