Judicial Immunity

views updated


A judge's complete protection from personal liability for exercising judicial functions.

Judicial immunity protects judges from liability for monetary damages in civil court, for acts they perform pursuant to their judicial function. A judge generally has immunity from civil damages if he or she had jurisdiction over the subject matter in issue. This means that a judge has immunity for acts relating to cases before the court, but not for acts relating to cases beyond the court's reach. For example, a criminal court judge would not have immunity if he or she tried to influence proceedings in a juvenile court.

Some states codify the judicial immunity doctrine in statutes. Most legislatures, including Congress, let court decisions govern the issue.

Judicial immunity is a common-law concept, derived from judicial decisions. It originated in the courts of medieval Europe to discourage persons from attacking a court decision by suing the judge. Losing parties were required instead to take their complaints to an appellate court. The idea of protecting judges from civil damages was derived from this basic tenet and served to solidify the independence of the judiciary. It became widely accepted in the English courts and in the courts of the United States.

Judicial immunity was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Randall v. Brigham, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 523, 19 L. Ed. 285 (1868). In Randall the Court held that an attorney who had been banned from the practice of law by a judge could not sue the judge over the disbarment. In its opinion, the Court stated that a judge was not liable for judicial acts unless they were done "maliciously or corruptly."

In Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 335, 20 L. Ed. 646 (1871), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified judicial immunity. Joseph H. Bradley had brought suit seeking civil damages against George P. Fisher, a former justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Bradley had been the attorney for John H. Suratt, who was tried in connection with the assassination of President abraham lincoln. In Suratt's trial, after Fisher had called a recess, Bradley accosted Fisher "in a rude and insulting manner" and accused Fisher of making insulting comments from the bench. Suratt's trial continued, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Immediately after discharging the jury, Fisher ordered from the bench that Bradley's name be stricken from the rolls of attorneys authorized to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Bradley sued Fisher for damages relating to lost work as a result of the order. At trial, Bradley attempted to introduce evidence in his favor, but Fisher's attorney objected to each item, and the judge excluded each item. After three failed attempts to present evidence, the trial court directed the jury to deliver a verdict in favor of Fisher.

Stump v. Sparkman

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld absolute immunity for judges performing judicial acts, even when those acts violate clearly established judicial procedures. In Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the Court held that an Indiana state judge, who ordered the sterilization of a female minor without observing due process, could not be sued for damages under the federal civil rights statute (42 U.S.C.A. section 1983).

In 1971 Judge Harold D. Sparkman, of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Indiana, acted on a petition filed by Ora McFarlin, the mother of fifteen-year-old Linda Spitler. McFarlin sought to have her daughter sterilized on the ground she was a "somewhat retarded" minor who had been staying out overnight with older men.

Judge Sparkman approved and signed the petition, but the petition had not been filed with the court clerk and the judge had not opened a formal case file. The judge failed to appoint a guardian ad litem for Spitler, and he did not hold a hearing on the matter before authorizing a tubal ligation. Spitler, who did not know what the operation was for, discovered she had been sterilized only after she was married. Spitler, whose married name was Stump, then sued Sparkman.

The Supreme Court ruled that Sparkman was absolutely immune because what he did was "a function normally performed by a judge," and he performed the act in his "judicial capacity." Although he may have violated state laws and procedures, he performed judicial functions that have historically been absolutely immune to civil lawsuits.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice potter stewart argued that Sparkman's actions were not absolutely immune simply because he sat in a courtroom, wore a robe, and signed an unlawful order. In Stewart's view the conduct of a judge "surely does not become a judicial act merely on his say so. A judge is not free, like a loose cannon, to inflict indiscriminate damage whenever he announces that he is acting in his judicial capacity."

On appeal by Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Judges could be reached for their malicious acts, but only through impeachment, or removal from office. Thus, the facts of the case were irrelevant. Even if Fisher had exceeded his jurisdiction in single-handedly banning Bradley from the court, Fisher was justified in his actions. According to the Court, "A judge who should pass over in silence an offence of such gravity would soon find himself a subject of pity rather than respect."

Since Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified some exceptions to judicial immunity. Judges do not receive immunity for their administrative decisions, such as in hiring and firing court employees (Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 108 S. Ct. 538, 98 L. Ed. 2d 555 [1988]). Judges also are not immune from declaratory and injunctive relief. These forms of relief differ from monetary relief. Generally they require parties to do or refrain from doing a certain thing. If a judge loses a suit for declaratory judgment or injunctive relief, he or she may not be forced to pay money damages, but may be forced to pay the court costs and attorneys' fees of the winning party. For example, assume that a judge requires the posting of bail by persons charged in criminal court with offenses for which they cannot be jailed. If a person subjected to this unconstitutional practice files suit against the judge, the judge will not be given judicial immunity and, upon losing the case, will be forced to pay the plaintiff's attorney's fees and court costs. (Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 104 S. Ct. 1970, 80 L. Ed. 2d 565 [1984]).

Should Judges Have Absolute or Qualified Immunity?

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that when judges perform judicial acts within their jurisdiction, they are absolutely immune from money damages lawsuits. When judges act outside their judicial function, such as in supervising their employees, they do not have absolute immunity. The Court's upholding of absolute immunity has troubled some legal commentators, who believe that in appropriate circumstances judges should be held personally accountable for judicial actions that are unlawful.

Defenders of absolute immunity claim that it is required for the benefit of the public, not for the protection of malicious or corrupt judges. The legitimacy of U.S. courts rests on the public's belief that judges have the freedom to act independently, without fear of the consequences. Absolute immunity provides the buffer needed for a judge to act.

In the adversarial process, one party wins, and the other party loses. Losing parties are inevitably disappointed, and some seek ways of venting their frustration at the legal system. Some file complaints with lawyer discipline boards, alleging ethical misconduct by the opposing party's attorney or their own attorney. Some file complaints with a judicial conduct board, claiming that the trial judge violated a canon of judicial conduct. Though these types of complaints do not result in the relitigation of a lawsuit, they do illustrate the vexatious litigation that faces attorneys and judges. Allowing parties to sue a judge for a judicial act would invite a torrent of meritless suits that would impede the judicial system.

Defenders of absolute immunity note that a flood of litigation would not be the only consequence of relaxing the immunity standard. They say that once judges became liable for damages suits, self-interest would lead them to avoid making decisions likely to provoke such suits. The resulting overcautiousness and timidity might be hard to detect, but it would impair independent and impartial adjudication.

Judges do make honest mistakes during the course of trial. The law is complex, and judges cannot call a recess of court to research every motion before making a decision. If a judge could be sued for damages, another judge might have to rule that the defendant judge was liable for injuries due to an erroneous decision or procedural flaw. Having judges judge one another could erode the integrity of the courts and undermine public confidence.

Defenders of absolute immunity also point out that appellate review is a viable remedy for correcting judicial conduct. In addition, if a judge has violated the canons of judicial conduct, judicial conduct boards may issue sanctions, including a recommendation of removal from the bench. A judge can be prosecuted for criminal acts. In some states judges may be impeached, and most state court judges must stand for election periodically. All these options serve as checks on judicial behavior and provide protection to the public.

Those who criticize absolute immunity recognize that judicial independence must be preserved. Nevertheless, they claim that in certain situations the only way to protect the public is to allow personal lawsuits against judges. By totally insulating judges from personal responsibility for their actions, the judicial system allows a small number of judges to escape the consequences of unlawful and outrageous behavior. The public loses respect when it sees a judge "beat the system," while the victim loses the chance to be made whole for the injuries flowing from the judicial act.

These critics believe that a qualified immunity standard would protect judges from meritless lawsuits and guarantee victims of unlawful judicial conduct their opportunity to seek damages. Qualified immunity is a lesser form of immunity that may be granted by a court if the judge demonstrates that the law was not clear on the subject in which the judge's actions occurred. They point out that the executive branch is governed by qualified immunity. There is no indication that the administration of government has ground to a halt, or that the executive branch cannot attract high-quality individuals to government service. A well-articulated qualified immunity standard would allow a lawsuit against a judge to be dismissed if it could be established that the judge was operating within accepted judicial authority.

The critics note that the alternative remedies offered by the defenders of absolute immunity do not address the type of conduct that would be the focus of a personal injury lawsuit against a judge. For example, in stump v. sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the judge issued an order to sterilize a teenage girl without the order's ever having been filed with the clerk of court. Because there was no record of a case filing or decision, the order could not be reviewed by an appellate court. The judge could be sanctioned by the judicial conduct board, but that would not compensate the victim of the illegal sterilization. Absolute immunity allowed the court to dismiss the girl's claim because the "judicial act" was one normally performed by a judge and was within the judge's judicial capacity.

Supporters of qualified immunity discount the assumption that it would precipitate a flood of litigation. They maintain that decisions that judges typically make will seldom be litigated, as appellate review will satisfy most litigants. However, in the rare circumstances where a judge abuses her authority and someone is injured, these supporters contend, it is only fair to qualify a judge's personal immunity. They argue that the removal of absolute immunity would, over time, deter judicial abuse: judges would not be intimidated, but they would be more careful to safeguard the rights of all parties.

The Court held in Pulliam that a judge could be forced to pay the plaintiff's attorney's fees and court costs under the 1976 Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1988. Gladys Pulliam, a Virginia state court magistrate, had jailed two men for failure to post bail following their arrest for abusive language and public drunkenness. Under Virginia law, the defendants could not receive a jail sentence if convicted of these offenses. The plaintiffs sued under the federal civil rights act 42 U.S.C.A. section 1983 and obtained an injunction forbidding the judge to require bail for these offenses. The judge was also ordered to pay the defendants $8,000 as reimbursement for their attorneys' fees.

Judges throughout the United States viewed the Pulliam decision as a serious assault on judicial immunity. The Conference of State Chief Justices, the judicial conference of the united states, the american bar association, and the American Judges Association lobbied Congress to amend the law and overturn Pulliam. Finally, in the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 (Pub. L. No. 104-317, 110 Stat. 3847), Congress inserted language that voided the decision. The amendment prohibits injunctive relief in a § 1983 action against a "judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity" unless "a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." In addition, language was added to § 1988 that precludes the award of costs and attorney's fees against judges acting in their official capacity.

Filing a civil complaint against a judge can be risky for attorneys because the doctrine of judicial immunity is well established. In Marley v. Wright, 137 F.R.D. 359 (W.D. Okla. 1991), attorney Frank E. Marley sued two Oklahoma state court judges, Thornton Wright, Jr., and David M. Harbour, their court reporter, and others. Marley alleged in his complaint that Wright and Harbour had violated his constitutional rights in connection with a custody case concerning Marley's children. The court not only dismissed the case, but also ordered Marley to pay the attorney's fees that Wright and Harbour had incurred in defending the suit. According to the court, Marley's complaint "was not warranted by existing law," and Marley had used the suit "not to define the outer boundaries of judicial immunity but to harass judges and judicial personnel who rendered a decision he did not like."

further readings

Block, Frederic. 1999. "Qualified Immunity: A View from the Bench." Touro Law Review 15 (summer).

Duffy, Shannon P. 1999. "Judges Have Absolute Immunity for Actions on the Bench, Circuit Rules." New Jersey Law Journal 157 (September 27): 7.

Morgan, Thomas D., and Ronald D. Rotunda. 1993. Professional Responsibility: Problems and Materials. 5th ed. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press.

Romo, Cheryl. 2002. "Jurist's Infamous Case Set Judicial Immunity Precedent." The Los Angeles Daily Journal 115 (December 30).