May 15, 1984
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May 15, 1984, Section A, Page 15Buy Reprints
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The Supreme Court ruled today that state judges may be sued for civil rights violations and may be ordered to pay the lawyers’ fees of those who sue them successfully.
While the 5-to-4 decision permitted only suits for injunctions, not damages, it marked a significant retreat from the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity to which the Court has long adhered.
Six years ago, for example, the Court ruled that a judge who had ordered a young woman to be sterilized without her knowledge or consent was absolutely immune from the woman’s subsequent damage suit.
The decision today, written by Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun, retained the bar against suits for damages. But the dissenters, in an opinion by Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell, argued that there was little practical difference, from the point of view of a judge’s pocketbook, between a damage suit and an order to pay lawyers’ fees.
The decision upheld a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Virginia, ordering a state magistrate to reimburse two men for $7,000 in lawyers’ fees.
The two men were arrested for petty offenses for which they could not have received a jail sentence. However, the magistrate jailed them because they could not make bail. The men sued in Federal court for a declaration that it was unconstitutional to require bail for non-jailable offenses and for an injunction against the continuation of the practice. They won and were awarded lawyers’ fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, which provides that prevailing parties in civil rights suits can recover their lawyers’ fees from the losing party.
Technically, the only question before the Court was whether, in passing the 1976 law, Congress intended to make judges liable for lawyers’ fees. But to decide that question, the Court first had to decide whether a state judge could be subject to a civil rights suit for an injunction in the first place.
Suit Used 1871 Rights Act
The suit against the Virginia magistrate was brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, one of the most widely used Federal civil rights laws. Usually referred to as Section 1983, this law permits suits for damages or injunctive relief against those who, ”under color of state law” violate an individual’s civil rights.
In his opinion, Justice Blackmun reviewed the history of judicial immunity in English common law, from which the American immunity doctrine is derived. He concluded that because English judges were subject to certain common-law writs much like modern- day injunctions, there was no historical basis for extending judicial immunity to injunctive suits.
Justice Blackmun also said there was no evidence that Congress meant to exclude judges from injunctions under Section 1983.
His opinion, Pulliam v. Allen, No. 82- 1432, was joined by Associate Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Powell said the majority opinion ”in effect eviscerates the doctrine of judicial immunity.” Subjecting judges to ”the ever-present threat of burdensome litigation,” he said, threatened judicial independence. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justices William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor joined the dissent.
The Court dealt with these other matters today:
Jury ChallengesFor the second time in a year, the Court refused to consider the question of whether a black defendant’s rights are violated by the prosecution’s use of its peremptory challenges to keep blacks off the jury. The Court turned down three death penalty appeals from state appellate courts in Illinois challenging the exclusion of black jurors.
The Court had the cases under review for some months, an indication that the Justices may have been close to taking up the issue. But only Justices Marshall and Brennan voted to take the cases. Justice Marshall said he dissented from the Court’s ”refusal to confront” what he called ”one of the gravest and most persistent problems facing the American judiciary today.” (Williams v. Illinois, No. 83-5785).
Psychiatric ExamIn another death penalty case, the Court refused to hear a challenge by a Texas death row inmate to the conditions set by the trial judge on a psychiatric examination. The judge refused to order an examination of the defendant’s competency to stand trial unless the defendant agreed to permit the prosecution to use anything he said in the examination against him in the sentencing phase of the trial. In order to impose a death sentence under Texas law, a jury must find that a defendant would pose a continuing threat of violence. The defendant argued that the judge’s terms violated his constitutional right against compelled self-incrimination. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Justices Marshall and Brennan voted to hear the appeal. (Porter v. McKaskle, No. 83-5808).A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 1984, Section A, Page 15 of the National edition with the headline: SUPREME COURT ROUNDUP; RULING SAYS STATE JUDGES MAY BE SUED IN CIVIL RIGHTS CASES.