Butz v. Economou

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In Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court granted absolute judicial immunity to a presiding officer in an administrative hearing in the federal executive branch.

Justice Byron White wrote the opinion for the 5-4 Court, with four justices dissenting only in part. Justice White held that "the risk of an unconstitutional act by one presiding at an agency hearing is clearly outweighed by the importance of preserving the independent judgment of these men and women. We therefore hold that persons subject to these restraints and performing adjudicatory functions within a federal agency are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their judicial acts. Those who complain of error in such proceedings must seek agency or judicial review."

Justice White wrote "that agency officials performing certain functions [are] analogous to those of a prosecutor should be able to claim absolute immunity with respect to such acts. The decision to initiate administrative proceedings against an individual or corporation is very much like the prosecutor's decision to initiate or move forward with a criminal prosecution. An agency official, like a prosecutor, may have broad discretion in deciding whether a proceeding should be brought and what sanctions should be sought."

He continued, "The discretion which executive officials exercise with respect to the initiation of administrative proceedings might be distorted if their immunity from damages arising from that decision was less than complete. Cf. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S., at 426 n. 24. While there is not likely to be anyone willing and legally able to seek damages from the officials if they do not authorize the administrative proceeding, cf. id., at 438 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment), there is a serious danger that the decision to authorize proceedings will provoke a retaliatory response. An individual targeted by an administrative proceeding will react angrily and may seek vengeance in the courts. A corporation will muster all of its financial and legal resources in an effort to prevent administrative sanctions. "When millions may turn on regulatory decisions, there is a strong incentive to counter-attack."[1]

The decision relied on the "ample opportunity" available to the defendant "to challenge the legality of the proceeding." The Court emphasized that "[a]n administrator's decision to proceed with a case is subject to scrutiny in the proceeding itself. The respondent may present his evidence to an impartial trier of fact and obtain an independent judgment as to whether the prosecution is justified. His claims that the proceeding is unconstitutional may also be heard by the courts. Indeed, respondent in this case was able to quash the administrative order entered against him by means of judicial review. See Economou v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 494 F.2d 519 (CA2 1974)."

Key to this decision was a finding that "the legal remedies already available to the defendant in such a proceeding provide sufficient checks on agency zeal." Accordingly, the Court held "that those officials who are responsible for the decision to initiate or continue a proceeding subject to agency adjudication are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their parts in that decision."

The Court held that there is:

no substantial difference between the function of the agency attorney in presenting evidence in an agency hearing and the function of the prosecutor who brings evidence before a court. In either case, the evidence will be subject to attack through cross-examination, rebuttal, or reinterpretation by opposing counsel. Evidence which is false or unpersuasive should be rejected upon analysis by an impartial trier of fact. If agency attorneys were held personally liable in damages as guarantors of the quality of their evidence, they might hesitate to bring forward some witnesses or documents. "This is particularly so because it is very difficult if not impossible for attorneys to be absolutely certain of the objective truth or falsity of the testimony which they present." Imbler v. Pachtman, [] at 440 (WHITE, J., concurring in judgment). Apart from the possible unfairness to agency personnel, the agency would often be denied relevant evidence. Cf. Imbler v. Pachtman, [] at 426. Administrative agencies can act in the public interest only if they can adjudicate on the basis of a complete record. We therefore hold that an agency attorney who arranges for the presentation of evidence on the record in the course of an adjudication is absolutely immune from suits based on the introduction of such evidence.


  1. Expeditions Unlimited Aquatic Enterprises, Inc. v. Smithsonian Institution, 184 U.S. App. D.C. 397, 401, 566 F.2d 289, 293 (1977), cert. pending, No. 76-418.