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Judicial Immunity
“A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority.”
U.S. Supreme Court
Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978)
 

Judicial Immunity vs. Due Process: When Should a Judge be Subject to Suit?
 
ROBERT CRAIG WATERS
 
Fall, 1987
 

In the American judicial system, few more serious threats to individual liberty can be imagined than a corrupt judge.

Clothed with the power of the state and authorized to pass judgment on the most basic aspects of everyday life, a judge can deprive citizens of liberty and property in complete disregard of the Constitution. The injuries inflicted may be severe and enduring. Yet the recent expansion of a judge-made exception to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1871, chief vehicle for redress of civil rights violations, has rendered state judges immune from suit even for the most bizarre, corrupt, or abusive of judicial acts. In the last decade this "doctrine of judicial immunity" has led to a disturbing series of legal precedents that effectively deny citizens any redress for injuries, embarrassment, and unjust imprisonment caused by errant judges.

Consider the following examples.

•  In 1978, the Supreme Court in Stump v. Sparkman held that the doctrine forbade a suit against an Indiana judge who had authorized the sterilization of a slightly retarded 15-year-old girl under the guise of an appendectomy. The judge had approved the operation without a hearing when the mother alleged that the girl was promiscuous. After her marriage two years later, the girl discovered she was sterile.

* * * * *

If judicial immunity truly is to serve as a bulwark of justice, some more clearly defined limit must be placed on it. Logically this limit must arise from the due process clause itself. Clothing a judge with immunity simply because he has performed a "judicial act" overlooks the real-world probability that even judicial acts can be utterly inconsistent with due process. Important personal rights, such as the right to have a family in Stump, can be destroyed by the mere nod of a judge’s head. Judges should not be privileged to violate the rights of citizens unfortunate enough to find themselves in a biased, corrupt, or irresponsible court. When unjust injuries are inflicted by improper judicial acts, the state or its insurers should be forced to bear the cost of the wrongful act, not the individual. Indeed, the history of the 1871 Act reveals that Congress intended to provide just such a remedy.

Instead of the abstract and ambiguous factors used in Stump to determine the existence of immunity, the courts should use a simpler inquiry founded on the fundamental principles embodied in the due process clause. To preserve the integrity of the judicial process, the courts always should presume that a trial court properly exercised its jurisdiction. But they should permit a plaintiff to overcome this presumption by showing that the judge acted with actual malice, consisting of a knowing or reckless disregard of due process. Specifically, if the court is to enjoy immunity, it must afford three things—notice, a chance to be heard, and a method of appeal. Then, and only then, would an irrebuttable presumption of immunity exist requiring dismissal of any subsequent suit against the judge.

* * * * *

American courts have agonized over the due process problems created in recent years by the doctrine of judicial immunity. A variety of ill-conceived approaches to the issue have resulted in "tests" that grant immunity to state-court judges in such sweeping terms as to amount to no test at all. The Supreme Court, troubled by threats to judicial independence, has developed its own test that invests judges with immunity for any act performed in an official capacity where the act itself is not expressly prohibited by existing law. Under this approach, corrupt and malicious local judges may easily shield even the most serious abuses behind a wall of immunity, leaving the victim unable to seek compensation from the state and its insurers.

Yet a state court’s jurisdiction is limited by due process guarantees of notice and a chance for an impartial hearing. Ignoring this fact, the Supreme Court has misconceived the problem by basing judicial immunity purely on statutory concerns and distorted readings of common law history. Like the jurisdiction of local courts, immunity itself—a judge-made doctrine—must be limited by due process, which is of constitutional dimension. The supremacy clause unquestionably nullifies even the most ancient of common law principles and even the most popular of state statutes to the extent they are inconsistent with due process.

Copyright 1987, Cato Institute
 

 
Endnotes:
  • The entire 14-page article is available as a PDF.

  • See also: Wikipedia, "Stump v. Sparkman," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stump_v._Sparkman, accessed 03/02/08.

Excerpted from: Cato Journal, Vol.7, No.2, 461-474 (Fall 1987), http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj7n2/cj7n2-13.pdf, accessed 03/02/08.  Robert Craig Waters was Judicial Clerk to Justice Rosemary Barkett of the Florida Supreme Court at the time of this article's publication.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.
 

 
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