Judicial Immunity Defense Not Absolute in Pennsylvania Case re: Imprisonment of Juveniles by Bribed Judges

The Development of the Doctrine of Judicial Immunity

Caputo: 1607 “seminal case” of judge determined “modern policies” of immunity.

By Mark Guydish  Timesleader.com Education Reporter

How could two judges accused of accepting millions for actions that led to increased incarceration of juveniles be immune from a lawsuit?

U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo seems to have anticipated the question – and anger – when he penned his opinion explaining the ruling, going into considerable detail on the case law that supports his decision.

He cites a 1990 ruling in San Diego that noted “as a historical matter, the doctrine of judicial immunity arose in response to the creation of the right of appeal. In the 10th and 11th centuries in England, when no right of appeal existed, losing litigants could challenge unfavorable judgments on the ground that they were false …. [O]nce appeal became available, judicial immunity was gradually accepted under the common law.”

The “seminal case” occurred in 1607 when an English judge determined “what are now considered some of the modern policies that underlie the doctrine of judicial immunity.” It ensures finality of judgments, protects judicial independence, avoids continual attacks upon judges who may be sincere in their conduct, and “protects the system of justice from falling into disrepute.”

As the doctrine evolved, courts determined it applies as long as the judge in question had jurisdiction. The first big case involving judicial immunity in the United States was Bradley vs. Fisher in 1871, when an attorney sued a judge who had “effectively disbarred him for rude and contemptuous behavior” in court. The U.S. Supreme court agreed that the judge had been too harsh, but that motives of a judge cannot “be the subject of judicial inquiry.”

Caputo then cites a 1967 case, Pierson vs. Ray, in which a judge was accused of making decisions based on racial discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court made the landmark ruling that “immunity applies even when the judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly, and it is not for the protection or benefit of a malicious or corrupt judge, but for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences.”

A 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Stump vs. Sparkman “expanded upon the requirement of a judicial act” stating that it is “the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it” that informs the immunity analysis.” A circuit court had granted a mother’s petition to have her 15-year-old daughter sterilized, and the daughter had argued the ruling was “so totally devoid of judicial concern” for her well-being “as to disqualify it as a judicial act.” The Supreme Court disagreed.

In a 1980 case (Dennis vs. Sparks) with direct impact on Caputo’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge accused of corruptly granting an injunction regarding oil leases was immune, but conspiring parties could still be liable. Caputo has similarly ruled conspiring parties in the current corruption probe are not fully immune.

The most recent Supreme Court ruling on judicial immunity was Mireles vs. Waco, in which the plaintiff alleged a judge had ordered police to forcibly bring him from another courtroom, authorized the use of unreasonable force, and called the plaintiff vulgar names. An appeals court had found the alleged conduct “not a judicial act,” but the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, further expanding the definition of a judicial act, which is protected by immunity. Caputo has ruled that some alleged actions in the lawsuit do not qualify as judicial acts and are not protected by immunity, a fact the plaintiffs’ attorneys embraced as a victory.

Caputo cites two cases in which the Supreme Court ruled immunity did not apply. In a 1988 case (Forrester vs. White), a judge was not immune from charges stemming from firing a probation officer. The Court ruled this was an administrative act, not a judicial one. The other involved a “judicial-like” committee, not a judge.

Caputo determined that arguments put forth by the plaintiffs in an effort to deny immunity to ex-county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan failed to meet any of the narrow situations in which the Supreme Court has determined judicial immunity did not apply. In fact, he noted the actions of the two judges were similar to those of judges granted immunity in the prior cases.

Conahan’s granting of an injunction to block release of a state report that criticized the county’s dealings with a private detention center was similar to the situation in Dennis vs. Sparks, Caputo noted.

“As to Ciavarella, focusing only on the nature of the act performed, as I am required to do by law, I also find that the determinations of delinquency and the sentences imposed were judicial acts,” Caputo wrote.

However, Conahan’s alleged signing of a “placement agreement” guaranteeing more than a million dollars would flow to the detention center by sending children there was an administrative act, as was his successful effort to cut funding for the county-owned detention center, essentially forcing its closure, which increased demand for placement in the private facility.

“Plaintiffs have argued that such egregious actions demand a contrary result. They argue that the conduct is so contemptible that immunity should not be available. They also note Ciavarella’s admission that he did some, if not all, of the acts for which he was indicted and suggest that this fact renders judicial immunity unavailable. They argue further that immunity should be available only for honest mistakes. And that failing such, the doctrine of immunity should not apply.

“Case law establishes that the availability of immunity is not determined by a sliding scale. The degree of corrupt behavior is not the touchstone of the immunity doctrine’s application. The doctrine holds that judges with bad intentions, as well as those with good intentions, are immune from suit.”


Addendum by Editor:  

Caputo also wrote in his opinion that both Conahan and Ciavarella still face liability — just not as much as before.

“For example, Conahan’s signing of a ‘Placement Agreement’ would be an administrative, not judicial act,” Caputo wrote. “Similarly, any acts in making budget requests to the Luzerne County commissioners would also be administrative or executive in nature. And the actions of Conahan and Ciavarella in coercing probation officers to change their recommendations is outside the role of a judicial officer.” Caputo wrote that he recognized the “egregious nature” of the allegations, but continuously stressed that was not the true issue.

“This is, however, about the rule of law,” Caputo wrote. “It is about the rule of law in the face of popular opinion which would seek a finding directly contrary to the result the rule of law dictates.” Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the JLC, called Caputo’s decision that the judges remain exposed to civil liability for their out-of-court conduct an important victory for the plaintiffs and the community.

“What is important to everybody is that the judges have not been dismissed from the lawsuit and we will have an opportunity to pursue our allegations against them and pursue our claims for damages,” Levick said.

Levick said the JLC recognized a risk that the court would grant immunity for the judges’ courtroom conduct. It argued that the constitutional violations that occurred in Ciavarella’s courtroom pushed the case outside the arena for judicial immunity in the United States. “We’re talking about 6,000 violations over the course of five years,” Levick said.

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