Tenney v. Brandhove
In Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367 (1951), the U.S. Supreme Court held that state legislators enjoy common-law immunity from liability for their legislative acts, an immunity that is similar in origin and rationale to that accorded Congressmen under the Speech or Debate Clause.
The Court concluded that Congress did not intend Section 1983 to abrogate the common-law immunity of state legislators. Although this case involved an action for damages under Section 1983, its holding is equally applicable to Section 1983 actions seeking declaratory or injunctive relief. In holding that Section 1983 "does not create civil liability" for acts unknown "in a field where legislators traditionally have power to act," id. at 379, the Court did not distinguish between actions for damages and those for prospective relief.
The Court recognized elsewhere that "a private civil action, whether for an injunction or damages, creates a distraction and forces [legislators] to divert their time, energy, and attention from their legislative tasks to defend the litigation." Eastland v. United States Servicemen's Fund, at 503. Although the separation of powers doctrine justifies a broader privilege for Congressmen than for state legislators in criminal actions, United States v. Gillock, 445 U.S. 360 (1980), the Court has generally equated the legislative immunity to which state legislators are entitled under Section 1983 to that accorded Congressmen under the Constitution.
- Eastland v. United States Servicemen's Fund, at 502-503, 505, 506
- Dombrowski v. Eastland, at 84-85
- United States v. Johnson, 383 U.S. 169, 180 (1966)
- Tenney v. Brandhove, at 377-379
This enables legislators to obtain dismissal of lawsuits on the grounds of absolute legislative immunity.