Tag Archive for: Judicial Immunity

Absolute judicial immunity is not a forgone conclusion!

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

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.

Sowing the seeds of judicial immunity — judicial immunity origins in the United States

09 Sep
September 9, 2012

Judicial immunity in America begins with Randall v. Brigham – 74 U.S. 523 (1868) and Bradley v. Fisher, 80 US 335 (1872).

[Judges] are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, unless perhaps where the acts in excess of jurisdiction are done maliciously or corruptly.  This doctrine is as old as the law, and its maintenance is essential to the impartial administration of justice. Any other doctrine would necessarily lead to the degradation of the judicial authority and the destruction of its usefulness [Argument 1 below].  Unless judges, in administering justice, are uninfluenced by considerations personal to themselves, they can afford little protection to the citizen in his person or property [Argument 2 below]. And uninfluenced by such considerations they cannot be if, whenever they err in judgment as to their jurisdiction, upon the nature and extent of which they are constantly required to pass, they may be subjected to prosecution at the instance of every party imagining himself aggrieved, and be called upon in a civil action in another tribunal, and perhaps before an inferior judge, to vindicate their acts.

Judicial immunity’s actual origins begin much earlier.  This however, will be the subject of a later post.

Justification for judicial immunity is thus summarized as follows:

  1. Americans want judges entrusted with judicial immunity because they want independent judges and they need “to believe” in the justness of judicial authority.  It is argued by many judges that to subject judges to suit would degrade the judiciary.
  2. Judges, in order to be truly independent in thought (and therefore just), must have no personal liability for their decision making.
  3. Any corrupt or malicious decision making by a judge can be remedied by the broader justice system.

I think argument #1 is easy to rebut.  I suspect that the above quoted court feels that if judges are not brought up before tribunals, then Americans will perceive that the judiciary is just.  I, on the other hand, believe that Americans will be quite frustrated with the judiciary when it eventually becomes clear that their perception of the court and justice does not comport with reality.  Moreover, judicial immunity creates the circumstances under which reality rapidly and dramatically departs from the perception of just system.  This is not a good argument.

Later, in the case law, concurring judges argue that argument #2 is true because judges must be free to vote their conscience.  I argue, that judges can only vote their conscience when there can be no other external factors potentially affecting their decision making.  If, on the other hand, one can imagine that external forces always exist to influence the decision making of a judge, it is impossible for a judge to truly vote their conscience.

I believe in the broader justice system.  However, federal judges share the same employer.  Furthermore, it is possible to deny access to a litigant to the broader justice system.

Judges should rely on the same justice system we Americans rely on when they are accused of a crime.  This reliance on the system may close the gap between reality and perception of justice.