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Judicial Immunity is a form of controversial legal immunity which protects judges and others employed by the judiciary from liability resulting from their judicial actions, no matter how incompetent, negligent, malicious, or unlawful (i.e. corrupt) such conduct might be.
Judicial immunity is stated as providing "the maximum ability [of judges] to deal fearlessly and impartially with the public". The justification is as follows: because of the likelihood of innocent individuals being convicted in a court of law under false claims, the "burden" of being subjected to a court of law (a trial) would "dampen" the judges "enthusiasm" or "passion". Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564 (1959). Opponents of judicial immunity argue that this doctrine is not adequately justified. For example, judges could be shielded from any personal capacity liability, and still be subject to official capacity liability so that they may be held accountable for their injurious acts -- thus "balancing" the "evil" to better protect the fundamental rights of victims.
Judicial immunity does not protect judges from suits stemming from administrative decisions made while off the bench, like hiring and firing decisions. But immunity generally does extend to all judicial decisions in which the judge has proper jurisdiction, even if a decision is made with "corrupt or malicious intent." In 1997 West Virginia judge Troisi became so irritated with a rude defendant, he stepped down from the bench, took off his robe, and bit the defendant on the nose. He pleaded no contest to state charges but was acquitted of federal charges of violating the defendants civil rights. He spent five days in jail and was put on probation.
Historically, judicial immunity was associated with the English common law idea that "the King can do no wrong." (Compare Sovereign immunity.) Judges, the King's delegates for dispensing justice, accordingly "ought not to be drawn into question for any supposed corruption [for this tends] to the slander of the justice of the King."
United States Supreme Court: Stump v. Sparkman
One of the leading decisions on judicial immunity is Stump v. Sparkman. In 1971, Judge Harold D. Stump granted a mother's petition to have a tubal ligation performed on her 15-year-old daughter, whom the mother alleged was "somewhat retarded." The daughter was told that the surgery was to remove her appendix. In 1975 the daughter, going by her then-married name of Linda Sparkman, learned that she had been sterilized. She sued the judge. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the judge could not be sued, because the decision was made in the course of his duties. In that regard, it was irrelevant that the judge's decision may have been contrary to law and morally reprehensible.
Limits of Judicial Immunity: Harris v. Harvey
Judges usually but not always receive immunity from being sued. One exception is Harris v. Harvey, 605 F.2d 330 (7th Cir. 1979) Sylvester Harris was an African-American police lieutenant in Racine, WI, attacked in a variety of ways by Judge Richard G. Harvey. Harris sued Harvey because of (a) comments Harvey made to the news media, (b) threatening letters Harvey wrote to city and county officials who attempted to defend Harris, and (c) parties Harvey held for ranking state officials during which he attempted to get Harris removed from law enforcement. The jury concluded that Harvey was not eligible for judicial immunity for these actions, as such acts which were not part of the judge's normal duties (i.e., were "outside his jurisdiction"). The jury awarded Harris $260,000 damages. Another judge later added $7,500 legal fees. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concurred with the jury's decision. Judge Harvey petitioned the Seventh Circuit court for an en banc rehearing, which was denied. His petition to the Supreme Court was also denied. Harris v. Harvey is a binding precedent in the Seventh Circuit and is persuasive authority in the other circuits.
On the other hand, misbehavior while performing judicial acts is immune. In the case of Mireles v. Waco (1991) 502 U.S. 9, 112 S.Ct. 286, 116 L.Ed.2d 9, when a defense lawyer failed to appear for a scheduled hearing, the judge not only issued a bench warrant for his arrest, but instructed the police sent to arrest him to "rough him up a little" to teach him not to skip court dates. Although this was entirely unprofessional and possibly criminal, the judge was held, by the Supreme Court, to have absolute immunity from a lawsuit arising from the resulting beating, because done entirely within his activities as a judge presiding over a court.
- Jones, Ashby (November 12, 2009). "New Lawsuits Try to Pierce Shield of Judicial Immunity". The Wall Street Journal.
- "Judge Who Bit Nose of Defendant Faces Prison". Los Angeles Times. October 11, 1997. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
- "Judge Is Acquitted in Nose-Biting Case". Lost Angeles Times. May 7, 1998. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
- Meiners, Roger; Ringleb & Edwards (2008). The Legal Environment of Business, Tenth Edition. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-324-65436-3.
- Floyd & Barker, 12 Co. Rep. 23, 25, 77 Eng. Rep. 1305, 1307 (Star Chamber 1607).
- Harris v. Harvey, 605 F.2d 330 (7th Cir. 1979).