Judicial Immunity

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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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

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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.

Stump v Sparkman

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld absolute IMMUNITY for judges performing judicial acts, even when those acts violate clearly established judicial procedures. In Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the Court held that an Indiana state judge, who ordered the sterilization of a female minor without observing DUE PROCESS, could not be sued for damages under the federal CIVIL RIGHTS statute (42 U.S.C.A. SECTION 1983).

In 1971 Judge Harold D. Sparkman, of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Indiana, acted on a petition filed by Ora McFarlin, the mother of fifteen-year-old Linda Spitler. McFarlin sought to have her daughter sterilized on the ground she was a "somewhat retarded" minor who had been staying out overnight with older men.

Judge Sparkman approved and signed the petition, but the petition had not been filed with the court clerk and the judge had not opened a formal case file. The judge failed to appoint a...

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