Cleavinger v. Saxner

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In Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 206 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court held against application of absolute judicial immunity in the absence of traditional safeguards of the judicial process.

The Court found the following procedural safeguards for prisoner disciplinary prceedings lacking, which disqualified the proceeding from absolute judicial immunity. Prisoners:[1]

  • (1) were not afforded a lawyer or independent nonstaff representative;
  • (2) could not compel attendance of witnesses or cross-examine them;
  • (3) could not conduct discovery;
  • (4) were not afforded a verbatim transcript;
  • (5) could not prevent hearsay evidence;
  • (6) had no cognizable burden of proof; and
  • (7) were judged by committee members that were not truly independent.

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the decision for the 6-3 Court, with Justice William Rehnquist writing a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Byron White. Justice Blackmun found:

Under the Bureau's disciplinary policy in effect at the time of respondents' hearings, few of the procedural safeguards contained in the Administrative Procedure Act under consideration in Butz were present. The prisoner was to be afforded neither a lawyer nor an independent nonstaff representative. There was no right to compel the attendance of witnesses or to cross-examine. There was no right to discovery. There was no cognizable burden of proof. No verbatim transcript was afforded. Information presented often was hearsay or self-serving. The committee members were not truly independent. In sum, the members had no identification with the judicial process of the kind and depth that has occasioned absolute immunity.

The Court established criteria to use in determining whether absolute immunity is appropriate:[2]

the following factors, among others, as characteristic of the judicial process and to be considered in determining absolute as contrasted from qualified immunity: (a) the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (b) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (c) insulation from political influence; (d) the importance of precedent; (e) the adversary nature of the process; and (f) the correctability of error on appeal.

Justice Blackmun did hold that the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity:

All the committee members need to do is to follow the clear and simple constitutional requirements of Wolff v. McDonnell, supra; they then should have no reason to fear substantial harassment and liability. Qualified immunity has been widely imposed on executive officials who possess greater responsibilities. See, e.g., Scheuer v. Rhodes, Butz v. Economou, Harlow v. Fitzgerald, all supra, and Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985). "[It] is not unfair to hold liable the official who knows or should know he is acting outside the law, and . . . insisting on an awareness of clearly established constitutional limits will not unduly interfere with the exercise of official judgment." Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S., at 506-507. See also Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S., at 588-589 (BRENNAN, J., dissenting); Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S., at 411 (Harlan, J., concurring in judgment). See Gray, Private Wrongs of Public Servants, 47 Calif. L. Rev. 303, 339 (1959). Public policy has not dictated otherwise.

Justice Rehnquist wrote in dissent:

The Court concludes that the members of the Institution Discipline Committee of a federal prison are more like school board members than they are like administrative law judges or members of a parole board, and that therefore they are not entitled to absolute immunity from liability for damages. Concededly the hearings in which these officials perform their adjudicatory function do not include all of the procedural safeguards or the adherence to written precedent that surround the function of an administrative law judge, but I do not read Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), as making these factors dispositive against a claim for absolute immunity. I also think that the factors peculiar to the prison environment counsel in favor of such an immunity for these officials.


  1. See Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 206.
  2. Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 202.