Imbler v. Pachtman

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In Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court held that prosecutors enjoy absolute judicial immunity as a result of their prosecuting activities. From prison, Mr. Imbler had contested his murder conviction and death penalty for nine years by means of multiple state and federal habeas corpus petitions. Eventually a federal court freed him from jail, finding "culpable use by the prosecution of misleading or false testimony." Id. at 414. Imbler then filed a Section 1983 lawsuit seeking damages from the trial prosecutor. The prosecutor had actually written to the governor after Imbler's conviction, and described for the governor newly discovered evidence that cast doubt on the conviction and whether Imbler was guilty of the crime. Id. at 412-13.

Justice Lewis Powell wrote the decision for the unanimous court (with a few concurrences). He wrote that "the question presented in this case is whether a state prosecuting attorney who acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution is amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivations of the defendant's constitutional rights." Justice Powell affirmed the Ninth Circuit decision and granted the prosecutor the same absolute immunity enjoyed by judges.

"The common-law immunity of a prosecutor is based upon the same considerations that underlie the common-law immunities of judges and grand jurors acting within the scope of their duties," Justice Powell wrote. He added that "[t]he ultimate fairness of the operation of the system itself could be weakened by subjecting prosecutors to § 1983 liability."

In a concurrence, Justice Byron White (joined by Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall) emphasized:[1]

I disagree with any implication that absolute immunity for prosecutors extends to suits based on claims of unconstitutional suppression of evidence because I believe such a rule would threaten to injure the judicial process and to interfere with Congress' purpose in enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1983, without any support in statutory language or history.


  1. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. at 433 (White, J., concurring) (emphasis in original).