St. Louis v. Praprotnik

485 U. S. 112

March 2, 1988

There was an architect in St. Louis on the government payroll named Praprotnik. He was the annoying type who files grievances about everything, so his immediate superiors shuffled him around and eventually get him laid off. To make a long story short, Praprotnik tried to hold St. Louis liable under Section 1983 because his superior officers were out to get him for exercising his First Amendment rights. St. Louis argued that it could not be liable because only misconduct by the highest policy making authorities could render the city itself subject to a 1983 suit.

The Supreme Court agreed with St. Louis in a 7-1 vote (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor wrote the plurality opinion, which first turned back the aggravating argument that the questions before the Court weren’t properly preserved for appeal. In a refreshing display of good sense, O’Connor said that this was an area of the law which badly needed more judicial definition, and thus brushed aside the dumb preservation claims. Then, looking at the municipal laws, the plurality concluded that only actions by the Mayor, Alderman, and the Civil Service Commission could render the city itself liable to 1983 actions. Because none of these authorities were linked with the alleged persecution against Praprotnik, the city was immune.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, had a few minor quibbles in a concurrence in judgment. They thought the plurality placed too much emphasis on statutory law in figuring out the highest authorities in cities. They also thought that presence of scanty superior review did not mean that an officer was not a policy making authority. But Brennan still agreed that the officers which Praprotnik sued were, in any event, not ones that would open up St. Louis to liability. In all honesty, the two opinions were very close, and Brennan made a mountain out of some rather small disagreements.

In dissent, Stevens wanted to play trial judge, and he reviewed a bunch of court transcripts in order to conclude that the Mayor and his immediate subordinates had played an important role in screwing over Praprotnik. He also would have come out differently on the preservation for appeal question. Pressing forward anyway, he eschewed the search for the proper authorities that the two other opinions conducted. Instead, he saw a deep conspiracy by a wide network of officials throughout St. Louis, and thought it perfectly right to hold the entire municipality accountable. This opinion is an example of Stevens at his worst – so far off the reservation that not even the ultra-liberals Brennan and Marshall could fathom his bizarre thought process.

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