Stump V. Sparkman, Should Judges Have Absolute Or Qualified Immunity?, Further Readings
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.
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 ).
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 ).
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.”