The Judicial Theory of a Reasonable Public Servant


  • Yong S. Lee

    1. Yong S. Lee is a professor of public policy and administration and director of the Institute of Science and Society at Iowa State University. His research focuses on the legal aspects of public management. He also conducts research on science policy. He has published widely in public administration journals. E-mail:
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Contemporary theory of the constitutionally reasonable public servant, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, is measured in reference to clearly established constitutional or statutory rights that a reasonable person would have known. In this article, the author seeks to elucidate the evolving contours of the objective reasonableness standard and examines how federal courts have applied it. To gain a firsthand impression of how public officials challenged in federal courts are measuring up to the objective reasonableness standard, the author provides a snapshot of 449 recent court cases selected from two federal circuits, the Eighth and the District of Columbia circuits. He concludes that public officials in these two circuits have fared very well under the standard of objective reasonableness. The flip side is that aggrieved individual citizens must carry a heavy burden to protect their constitutional rights.