Chappell v. Wallace

LOCATION: Shell Lake, Wisconsin

DOCKET NO.: 82-167
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 462 US 296 (1983)
ARGUED: Apr 26, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 13, 1983

John Murcko - on behalf of the Respondent
J. Paul McGrath - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Chappell v. Wallace

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 1983 in Chappell v. Wallace

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in the case of George C. Chappell and others against Vernon Wallace and others.

Mr. McGrath, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

J. Paul McGrath:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

There is but one issue in this case and that is whether military personnel may be permitted to maintain a damage action against their superiors for alleged constitutional torts.

The Ninth Circuit held that they may, at least under certain circumstances, and we ask this Court to reverse that ruling.

The respondents were five black enlisted men who were serving aboard the guided missile destroyer, U.S.S. Decatur.

They sued their superiors from the chief petty officers immediately above them on up to the commander of the ship and charged that actions taken by those superior officers were racially motivated and therefore that the Equal Protection rights of the respondents were violated.

The actions in question were actions taken in the ordinary course of military command.

They involved assignments to particular parts of the ship or to particular duties.

They involved performance evaluations.

They involved minor punishments for actions taken aboard the ship.

And they involved scoldings, or in the words of the record below, being chewed out by their superior officers.

The District Court dismissed, on the motion of the defendants, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

In doing so, the court recognized that permitting an action such as this to be maintained had serious drawbacks.

The court agreed that the mere maintenance of such an action can be disruptive of military discipline.

And the court also expressly recognized that permitting a civilian court at the beginning of such a process to review the internal disciplinary mechanisms of the service... of the military services could usurp military functions.

But nevertheless the court held that a constitutional damage action could be maintained and that the superior officers were not entitled to absolute immunity, and then it remanded the case to the District Court to consider whether this particular case could continue in light of a four-part test which the court promulgated.

The decision of the court below, if allowed to stand, means at least two things.

First it means that every military commander is subject to damage suits by his or her subordinate for any command decision taken with respect to them.

And secondly, the decision below is flatly inconsistent with the whole approach this Court has taken to intra-military suits.

And it is extremely troublesome in its impact.

Byron R. White:

And the same would go for the Fifth Circuit case?

J. Paul McGrath:

No, Mr. Justice White, the Fifth Circuit case was a judicial review of the intra-military process and it is clear that in certain circumstances the review process within the military--

Byron R. White:

This case you don't think lends any support for this--

J. Paul McGrath:

--It lends no support whatsoever.

We urge two bases for reversal here.

First, under the Bivens case and the cases following Bivens, this Court has consistently held that no constitutional damage action will be implied if special factors counsel hesitation.

Well in this case, the special nature of the military command structure, as framed by Congress, and its operation, are the special factors which counsel hesitation in implying a Bivens remedy.

And secondly, under the Butz decision, this Court has held, and in cases following Butz, this Court has held that there should be absolute immunity afforded to governmental officials if those officials have special functions.

Byron R. White:

--You mean against damages or injunctions?