Judicial immunity

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Judicial immunity is a general legal doctrine that prevents lawsuits against judges. It does not preclude injunctive relief or awards of attorney's fees allowed by statute.

Three United States Supreme Court cases form an appropriate starting point for analyzing borderline questions of judicial immunity. In Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union, 446 U.S. 719, 736 (1980), the Supreme Court held that judicial immunity did not bar injunctive relief against the Virginia Supreme Court and its chief justice. Plaintiffs brought a facial challenge to an allegedly unconstitutional bar rule and sought to enjoin defendants from prospectively enforcing it against attorneys. In upholding the injunction, the Court distinguished between the various capacities in which the state's supreme court was authorized to act under state law. Thus, in conjunction with administering bar matters, the state's highest court engages in adjudicative duties (determining moral fitness of attorney applicants), legislative or rule-making duties (promulgating bar admission rules [degree] and procedures), and enforcement duties (applying the bar rules against attorneys or bar applicants), but judicial immunity would not per se apply to the latter two functions. In Consumers Union, the Court held that plaintiffs were entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief without regard to the defendants' status as judicial officers because the lawsuit arose out of their role as "enforcers" of the bar rules. Thus, like any state official who enforces laws, injunctive and declaratory relief were available notwithstanding that defendants were judicial officers. Id.

Four years later, in Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 541-42 (1984), the Supreme Court held that judicial immunity did not prohibit declaratory and injunctive relief against a judicial officer acting in his or her judicial capacity. In Pulliam, plaintiff had challenged the constitutionality of a state judge's practice of incarcerating persons awaiting trial for nonincarcerable offenses--acts clearly taken in defendant's judicial capacity. Thus, in the wake of Consumers Union and Pulliam, judicial immunity did not apply to acts taken by judicial officers in their enforcement capacities and was not a bar to declaratory and injunctive relief for acts taken in the judge's judicial capacity.

Finally, in Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219 (1988), the Court again recognized the importance of properly categorizing a judicial officer's acts for purposes of determining whether judicial immunity applies. In that case the Court found judicial immunity inapplicable where a state judge had been sued for sexual discrimination in employment-related matters. Id. at 229, 108 S. Ct. at 545. The Court noted that there is no immunity for "acts that simply happen to have been done by judges" when those acts are not judicial acts. Id. at 227, 108 S. Ct. at 544. Rather, the "immunity is justified and defined by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches." Id. Although the Supreme Court had never articulated a precise and general definition of the class of acts entitled to immunity, the Court recognized the "intelligible distinction between judicial acts and the administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may on occasion be assigned by law to perform." Id. at 227, 108 S. Ct. at 544.

Consumers Union, Pulliam, and Forrester demonstrate that the question of judicial immunity in any given situation can only be answered with reference to the relief sought and the capacity in which the judge had acted. It is also clear that the Supreme Court in crafting judicial immunity over the years did not consider every act taken by a judge to be in his judicial capacity merely by virtue of the officer's status as a judge.

In 1996 Congress enacted the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 which amended 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 to provide that "in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." Pub. L. No. 104-317, 110 Stat. 3847 (Oct. 19, 1996) (emphasis added). The Senate report indicates that the amendment "restores the doctrine of judicial immunity to the status it occupied prior to [Pulliam]" because Pulliam had departed from "400 years of common law tradition and weakened judicial immunity protections." S. Rep. 104-366, at *36-27, 1996 U.S.C.C.A.N. 4202, 4216-14.

Sources

  • Leclerc v. Webb, 270 F. Supp. 2d 779 (E.D. La. 2003)
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