Judicial immunity dodged a bullet in the 1978 lawsuit Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349.
Here’s what happened: The mother of Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman filed a petition to have her minor daughter sterilized. The judge, Judge Harold D. Stump, signed Ms. Sparkman’s sterilization petition in a flawed legal process (without due process) and without legal authority. A lawsuit later came to pass after Ms. Sparkman came of age and couldn’t have children. Ms. Sparkman subsequently sued Judge Harold Stump for damages.
Unfortunately, Ms. Sparkman did not also challenge the constitutionality of judicial immunity in her lawsuit. Therefore, the US Supreme Court had no other choice but to apply the judicial immunity doctrine as it had been thus far defined: Judges have absolute immunity when performing judicial acts.
Ms. Sparkman’s attorneys argued that Judge Stump was personally liable because he was operating outside his judicial authority: Judge Stump didn’t provide Ms. Sparkman due process and that he had no statutory authority to perform such an act. The Supreme Court concluded that although the Judge behaved badly, he was nevertheless performing a judicial act and was therefore operating in his judicial capacity. Judge Stump had immunity.
There was significant disagreement in the ruling however. In the dissent, United States Supreme Court Justice Powell stated:
But where a judicial officer acts in a manner that precludes all resort to appellate or other judicial remedies that otherwise would be available, the underlying assumption of the Bradley doctrine is inoperative. See Pierson v. Ray, supra, at 554.
In this case, as MR. JUSTICE STEWART points out, ante, at 369, Judge Stump’s unjudicial conduct insured that “[t]here was and could be no appeal.” The complete absence of normal judicial process foreclosed resort to any of the “numerous remedies” that “the law has provided for private parties.” Bradley, supra,at 354.
Central to the judiciary’s rationale for judicial immunity is the presumption that an aggrieved person may seek redress at appeal when they feel that a judge has made a bad decision. Again, Justice Powell in the Stump dissent:
Underlying the Bradley immunity, then, is the notion that private rights can be sacrificed in some degree to the achievement of the greater public good deriving from a completely independent judiciary, because there exist alternative forums and methods for vindicating those rights.
Though it was the majority’s position that Judge Stump did enjoy immunity for terrible judicial act, it was Justice Powell’s (and two others–a 5-3 decision) position that when judicial acts defeat due process, the offending judge shall not be immune. We cannot know if this Court would have found absolute judicial immunity unconstitutional, but the minority emphatically did not like the precedent the case set. Additionally, the minority found missing the underlying support judicial immunity when the judicial acts defeat due process (the bullet dodged).
We are challenging judicial immunity for intentional acts, because it has been our experience that intentional illegal acts by the judiciary are routinely designed to, or have the practical effect, of defeating due process.