Compensation for Constitutional Torts: Reflections on the Significance of Fault

This essay is about a neglected aspect of the problem of redressing constitutional violations. Most discussions focus on incentive effects. Unconstitutional conduct can be discouraged by the “hands-on” mechanism of reform by injunction or, more commonly, through the indirection of deterrence. Deterrence issues include selection of the penalties needed to deter official misconduct; the risk that they may also inhibit legitimate government activity; the recruitment of private attorneys general to augment enforcement; and various costs of administration. These and other aspects of deterrence pervade discussions in the Supreme Court. They are also debated in a rich and sophisticated secondary literature. But there is another side to the matter that has received scant attention. That issue is the role of compensation for violations of constitutional rights as a value independent of any incentive effect.