Absolute judicial immunity
Absolute judicial immunity is a legal doctrine establishing that a judge is not liable for monetary damages for acts performed in the exercise of his or her judicial functions. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). Judicial immunity is wider than prosecutorial immunity: a Judge is absolutely immune from civil suit so long as he has jurisdiction over the subject matter before him. That jurisdiction was found in Stump.
To determine whether an act is judicial in nature so that immunity would apply, a court looks to "the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e., whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 362.
Once it is determined that a judge was acting in his or her judicial capacity, absolute immunity applies "however erroneous the act may have been, and however injurious in its consequences it may have proved to the plaintiff." Ashelman v. Pope, 793 F.2d 1072, 1075 (9th Cir. 1986)(internal citations omitted). For example, judicial immunity is not lost "by allegations that a judge conspired with one party to rule against another party: 'a conspiracy between judge and [a party] to predetermine the outcome of a judicial proceeding, while clearly improper, nevertheless does not pierce the immunity extended to judges. ...'" Moore v. Brewster, 96 F.3d 1240, 1244 (9th Cir. 1996)(quoting Ashelman v. Pope, 793 F.2d at 1078). Absolute immunity for judicial officers "is justified and defined by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches." Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988).
There are two circumstances in which absolute judicial immunity does not apply. First, a judge may not rely on immunity when he or she performs an act that is not "judicial" in nature. Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 360. For example, when a judge used physical force to evict a person from the courtroom, the Ninth Circuit held that the judge performed a nonjudicial act not covered by absolute immunity. Gregory v. Thompson, 500 F.2d 59, 63 (9th Cir. 1974).
Second, absolute immunity does not apply when a judge acts "in the clear absence of all jurisdiction." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 356 (internal citations omitted). When immunity is at issue, the scope of a judge's jurisdiction "must be construed broadly. ... 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." Id.
The question of whether a judge acted in excess of his or her authority in making a judicial ruling is a distinct issue from the question of whether a judge acted in the clear absence of jurisdiction. Even if a judge exceeds his or her authority in making a judicial ruling in a particular case, that judge is immune if the case is properly before him or her. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 13 (1991). The difference between acting in the absence of jurisdiction and acting in excess of authority is made clear in the following example: "if a probate judge, with jurisdiction over only wills and estates, should try a criminal case, he would be acting in the clear absence of jurisdiction and would not be immune from liability for his action; on the other hand, if a judge of a criminal court should convict a defendant of a nonexistent crime, he would merely be acting in excess of his jurisdiction and would be immune." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 357 (internal citation omitted).
The immunity of a judge for acts within his jurisdiction has roots extending to the earliest days of the common law. See Floyd v. Barker, 12 Coke 23, 77 Eng. Rep. 1305 (1608). Chancellor Kent traced some of its history in Yates v. Lansing, 5 Johns. 282 (N.Y. 1810), and this Court accepted the rule of judicial immunity in Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335 (1872). See n. 12, supra. The immunity of grand jurors, an almost equally venerable common-law tenet, see Floyd v. Barker, supra, also has been adopted in this country. See, e.g., Turpen v. Booth, 56 Cal. 65 (1880); Hunter v. Mathis, 40 Ind. 356 (1872). Courts that have extended the same immunity to the prosecutor have sometimes remarked on the fact that all three officials - judge, grand juror, and prosecutor - exercise a discretionary judgment on the basis of evidence presented to them. Smith v. Parman, supra, Watts v. Gerking, supra. It is the functional comparability of their judgments to those of the judge that has resulted in both grand jurors and prosecutors being referred to as "quasi-judicial" officers, and their immunities being termed "quasi--judicial" as well. See, e.g., Turpen v. Booth, supra, at 69; Watts v. Gerking, supra, at 661, 228 P., at 138.
- Wilkinson v. Ellis, 484 F. Supp. 1072, 1084 n.28 (E.D. Pa. 1980).
- Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976).
- Frost v. Fuquay, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34875 (D. Idaho May 11, 2007)