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Judge Immune From § 1983 Action

Judge Immune From § 1983 Action

The U.S. Supreme Court held that an Indiana circuit judge acting under
Indiana law was immune from liability under 42 U.S.C. 1983, even if he
issued an erroneous ruling. A woman and her husband filed suit under § 1983
against her mother and the judge who granted the mother's petition to
perform tubal ligation sterilization on the plaintiff when she was 15. They
also sued the doctors and the hospital involved in the surgery. A U.S.
District Court found that the judge, the only state agent named in the
suit, was "absolutely immune" from liability and thus dismissed the case.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed at 552 F.2d 172.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that since the judge was acting legally under
Indiana law and did not act maliciously, he was immune from liability even
if his ruling was erroneous. See: Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 351, 98 S.Ct.
1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978).

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Related legal case

Stump v. Sparkman

[56] * Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr., for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities et al.; by Bruce J. Ennis, Joel M. Gora, Paul Friedman, and Lawrence M. Reuben for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.; and by Ronald M. Soskin for the National Center for Law and the Handicapped, Inc.

Opinion Footnotes

[57] *fn1 The full text of the petition presented to Judge Stump read as follows:

"STATE OF INDIANA COUNTY OF DEKALB ss: "PETITION TO HAVE TUBAL LIGATION PERFORMED ON MINOR AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT "Ora Spitler McFarlin, being duly sworn upon her oath states that she is the natural mother of and has custody of her daughter, Linda Spitler, age fifteen (15) being born January 24, 1956 and said daughter resides with her at 108 Iwo Street, Auburn, DeKalb County, Indiana. "Affiant states that her daughter's mentality is such that she is considered to be somewhat retarded although she is attending or has attended the public schools in DeKalb Central School System and has been passed along with other children in her age level even though she does not have what is considered normal mental capabilities and intelligence. Further, that said affiant has had problems in the home of said child as a result of said daughter leaving the home on several occasions to associate with older youth or young men and as a matter of fact having stayed overnight with said youth or men and about which incidents said affiant did not become aware of until after such incidents occurred. As a result of this behavior and the mental capabilities of said daughter, affiant believes that it is to the best interest of said child that a Tubal Ligation be performed on said minor daughter to prevent unfortunate circumstances to occur and since it is impossible for the affiant as mother of said minor child to maintain and control a continuous observation of the activities of said daughter each and every day. "Said affiant does hereby in consideration of the Court of the DeKalb Circuit Court approving the Tubal Ligation being performed upon her minor daughter does hereby [ sic ] covenant and agree to indemnify and keep indemnified and hold Dr. John Hines, Auburn, Indiana, who said affiant is requesting perform said operation and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, Auburn, Indiana, whereas [ sic ] said operation will be performed, harmless from and against all or any matters or causes of action that could or might arise as a result of the performing of said Tubal Ligation. "IN WITNESS WHEREOF, said affiant, Ora Spitler McFarlin, has hereunto subscribed her name this 9th day of July, 1971. "/s/ ORA SPITLER McFARLIN Ora Spitler McFarlin Petitioner "Subscribed and sworn to before me this 9th day of July, 1971. "/s/ WARREN G. SUNDAY Warren G. Sunday Notary Public "My commission expires January 4, 1975. "I, Harold D. Stump, Judge of the DeKalb Circuit Court, do hereby approve the above Petition by affidavit form on behalf of Ora Spitler McFarlin, to have Tubal Ligation performed upon her minor daughter, Linda Spitler, subject to said Ora Spitler McFarlin covenanting and agreeing to indemnify and keep indemnified Dr. John Hines and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital from any matters or causes of action arising therefrom. "/s/ HAROLD D. STUMP Judge, DeKalb Circuit Court "Dated July 9, 1971"

[58] *fn2 The District Court gave the following summary of the constitutional claims asserted by the Sparkmans:

"Whether laid under section 1331 or 1343 (3) and whether asserted directly or via section 1983 and 1985, plaintiffs' grounds for recovery are asserted to rest on the violation of constitutional rights. Plaintiffs urge that defendants violated the following constitutional guarantees: "1. that the actions were arbitrary and thus in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; "2. that Linda was denied procedural safeguards required by the Fourteenth Amendment; "3. that the sterilization was permitted without the promulgation of standards; "4. that the sterilization was an invasion of privacy; "5. that the sterilization violated Linda's right to procreate; "6. that the sterilization was cruel and unusual punishment; "7. that the use of sterilization as punishment for her alleged retardation or lack of self-discipline violated various constitutional guarantees; "8. that the defendants failed to follow certain Indiana statutes, thus depriving Linda of due process of law; and "9. that defendants violated the equal protection clause, because of the differential treatment accorded Linda on account of her sex, marital status, and allegedly low mental capacity." Sparkman v. McFarlin, Civ. No. F 75-129 (ND Ind., May 13, 1976).

[59] *fn3 The District Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the federal claims for that reason and dismissed the remaining pendent state claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

[60] *fn4 Sparkman v. McFarlin, 552 F.2d 172

[61] *fn5 Even earlier, in Randall v. Brigham, 7 Wall. 523 (1869), the Court stated that judges are not responsible "to private parties in civil actions for their judicial acts, however injurious may be those acts, and however much they may deserve condemnation, unless perhaps where the acts are palpably in excess of the jurisdiction of the judges, and are done maliciously or corruptly." Id., at 537. In Bradley the Court reconsidered that earlier statement and concluded that "the qualifying words used were not necessary to a correct statement of the law...."13 Wall., at 351.

[62] *fn6 In holding that a judge was immune for his judicial acts, even when such acts were performed in excess of his jurisdiction, the Court in Bradley stated:

"A distinction must be here observed between excess of jurisdiction and the clear absence of all jurisdiction over the subject-matter. Where there is clearly no jurisdiction over the subject-matter any authority exercised is a usurped authority, and for the exercise of such authority, when the want of jurisdiction is known to the judge, no excuse is permissible. But where jurisdiction over the subject-matter is invested by law in the judge, or in the court which he holds, the manner and extent in which the jurisdiction shall be exercised are generally as much questions for his determination as any other questions involved in the case, although upon the correctness of his determination in these particulars the validity of his judgments may depend." Id., at 351-352.

[63] *fn7 In Bradley, the Court illustrated the distinction between lack of jurisdiction and excess of jurisdiction with the following examples: if a probate judge, with jurisdiction over only wills and estates, should try a criminal case, he would be acting in the clear absence of jurisdiction and would not be immune from liability for his action; on the other hand, if a judge of a criminal court should convict a defendant of a nonexistent crime, he would merely be acting in excess of his jurisdiction and would be immune. Id., at 352.

[64] *fn8 Indiana Code § 33-4-4-3 (1975) states as follows:

"Jurisdiction. Said court shall have original exclusive jurisdiction in all cases at law and in equity whatsoever, and in criminal cases and actions for divorce, except where exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction is, or may be conferred by law upon justices of the peace. It shall also have exclusive jurisdiction of the settlement of decedents' estates and of guardianships: Provided, however, That in counties in which criminal or superior courts exist or may be organized, nothing in this section shall be construed to deprive such courts of the jurisdiction conferred upon them by laws, and it shall have such appellate jurisdiction as may be conferred by law, and it shall have jurisdiction of all other causes, matters and proceedings where exclusive jurisdiction thereof is not conferred by law upon some other court, board or officer."

[65] *fn9 In McAlester the plaintiffs alleged that they had gone to the courthouse where their son was to be tried by the defendant in order to give the son a fresh set of clothes. When they went into the defendant judge's office, he allegedly ordered them out and had a deputy arrest one of them and place him in jail for the rest of the day. Several months later, the judge issued an order holding the plaintiff in contempt of court, nunc pro tunc.

[66] *fn10 Other Courts of Appeals, presented with different fact situations, have concluded that the challenged actions of defendant judges were not performed as part of the judicial function and that the judges were thus not entitled to rely upon the doctrine of judicial immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for example, has held that a justice of the peace who was accused of forcibly removing a man from his courtroom and physically assaulting him was not absolutely immune. Gregory v. Thompson,500 F.2d 59 (1974). While the court recognized that a judge has the duty to maintain order in his courtroom, it concluded that the actual eviction of someone from the courtroom by use of physical force, a task normally performed by a sheriff or bailiff, was "simply not an act of a judicial nature." Id., at 64. And the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in Lynch v. Johnson,420 F.2d 818 (1970), that the county judge sued in that case was not entitled to judicial immunity because his service on a board with only legislative and administrative powers did not constitute a judicial act.

[67] *fn11 MR. JUSTICE STEWART, in dissent, complains that this statement is inaccurate because it nowhere appears that judges are normally asked to approve parents' decisions either with respect to surgical treatment in general or with respect to sterilizations in particular. Of course, the opinion makes neither assertion. Rather, it is said that Judge Stump was performing a "function" normally performed by judges and that he was taking "the type of action" judges normally perform. The dissent makes no effort to demonstrate that Judge Stump was without jurisdiction to entertain and act upon the specific petition presented to him. Nor does it dispute that judges normally entertain petitions with respect to the affairs of minors. Even if it is assumed that in a lifetime of judging, a judge has acted on only one petition of a particular kind, this would not indicate that his function in entertaining and acting on it is not the kind of function that a judge normally performs. If this is the case, it is also untenable to claim that in entertaining the petition and exercising the jurisdiction with which the statutes invested him, Judge Stump was nevertheless not performing a judicial act or was engaging in the kind of conduct not expected of a judge under the Indiana statutes governing the jurisdiction of its courts.

[68] *fn12 MR. JUSTICE STEWART's dissent, post, at 369, suggests that Judge Stump's approval of Mrs. McFarlin's petition was not a judicial act because of the absence of what it considers the "normal attributes of a judicial proceeding." These attributes are said to include a "case," with litigants and the opportunity to appeal, in which there is "principled decisionmaking." But under Indiana law, Judge Stump had jurisdiction to act as he did; the proceeding instituted by the petition placed before him was sufficiently a "case" under Indiana law to warrant the exercise of his jurisdiction, whether or not he then proceeded to act erroneously. That there were not two contending litigants did not make Judge Stump's act any less judicial. Courts and judges often act ex parte. They issue search warrants in this manner, for example, often without any "case" having been instituted, without any "case" ever being instituted, and without the issuance of the warrant being subject to appeal. Yet it would not destroy a judge's immunity if it is alleged and offer of proof is made that in issuing a warrant he acted erroneously and without principle.

[69] *fn13 The issue is not presented and we do not decide whether the District Court correctly concluded that the federal claims against the other defendants were required to be dismissed if Judge Stump, the only state agent, was found to be absolutely immune. Compare Kermit Constr. Corp. v. Banco Credito y Ahorro Ponceno,547 F.2d 1 (CA1 1976), with Guedry v. Ford, 431 F.2d 660 (CA5 1970).

Dissent Footnotes

[70] *fn1 In the Bradley case the plaintiff was a lawyer who had been disbarred; in the Pierson case the plaintiffs had been found guilty after a criminal trial.

[71] *fn2 See 13 Wall., at 347, 348, 349, 351, 354, 357.

[72] *fn3 This general authority of a parent was held by an Indiana Court of Appeals in 1975 not to include the power to authorize the sterilization of his minor child. A.L. v. G.R.H., 163 Ind. App. 636, 325 N.E. 2d 501.

Contrary to the Court's conclusion, ante, at 359, that case does not in the least demonstrate that an Indiana judge is or ever was empowered to act on the merits of a petition like Mrs. McFarlin's. The parent in that case did not petition for judicial approval of her decision, but rather "filed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking declaration of her right under the common-law attributes of the parent-child relationship to have her son... sterilized." 163 Ind. App. at 636-637, 325 N.E. 2d at 501. The Indiana Court of Appeals' decision simply established a limitation on the parent's common-law rights. It neither sanctioned nor contemplated any procedure for judicial "approval" of the parent's decision. Indeed, the procedure followed in that case offers an instructive contrast to the judicial conduct at issue here: "At the outset, we thank counsel for their excellent efforts in representing a seriously concerned parent and in providing the guardian ad litem defense of the child's interest." Id., at 638, 325 N.E. 2d, at 502.

[73] *fn4 These statutes were repealed in 1974.

[74] *fn5 Believing that the conduct of Judge Stump on July 9, 1971, was not a judicial act, I do not need to inquire whether he was acting in "the clear absence of all jurisdiction over the subject matter." Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall., at 351."Jurisdiction" is a coat of many colors. I note only that the Court's finding that Judge Stump had jurisdiction to entertain Mrs. McFarlin's petition seems to me to be based upon dangerously broad criteria. Those criteria are simply that an Indiana statute conferred "jurisdiction of all... causes, matters and proceedings," and that there was not in 1971 any Indiana law specifically prohibiting what Judge Stump did.

[75] *fn6 The only question before us in this case is the scope of judicial immunity. How the absence of a "judicial act" might affect the issue of whether Judge Stump was acting "under color of" state law within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or the issue of whether his act was that of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment that need not, therefore, be pursued here.

1a See Handler & Klein, The Defense of Privilege in Defamation Suits Against Government Executive Officials, 74 Harv. L. Rev. 44, 53-55 (1960); Jaffe, Suits Against Governments and Officers: Damage Actions, 77 Harv. L. Rev. 209, 233-235 (1963); Note, Federal Executive Immunity From Civil Liability in Damages: A Reevaluation of Barr v. Mateo, 77 Colum. L. Rev. 625, 647 (1977). 2a In both Bradley and Pierson any errors committed by the judges involved were open to correction on appeal.