The doctrine of judicial immunity has deep roots in American law. This doctrine provides that judges cannot be held civilly liable for decisions made in their official capacity. It is designed to preserve judicial independence; if judges could be held liable for their decisions, they would undoubtedly become overly cautious. Decision-making would be motivated not only by legal and factual analyses but also by judges’ sense of self-preservation. To prevent these influences from creeping into judicial decision-making, American courts have long held that lawsuits based on judges’ official decisions must be dismissed.
There are two common exceptions to this doctrine, though. Judges are not immune (1) when they act without jurisdiction or (2) when they act in a non-judicial capacity. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently had an opportunity to consider the first exception in Bright v. Gallia County, Ohio, and issued a published decision that will shape future judicial immunity cases in the Sixth Circuit.
The plaintiff in Bright was a public defender appointed by a county board of commissioners to represent indigent criminal defendants. When Judge David Dean Evans refused to accept a plea agreement between Bright’s client and the prosecutor, Bright filed a motion characterizing Judge Evans’s decision as “arbitrary,” “unreasonable,” and “unconscionable.” The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals described Bright’s motion as “emphatic and forceful,” but noted that “he used zero profanity and made no charges of ethical impropriety.“
Still, Judge Evans was angry. He decided that he couldn’t be impartial in any case in which Bright was representing a defendant, and ordered Bright removed from 70 cases. The county terminated Bright’s employment, given his inability to appear before Judge Evans.
Bright sued Judge Evans, the county, and others under 42 U.S.C. 1983, a federal statute that imposes civil liability on those who deprive others of constitutional rights while acting under color of law. Although the District Court denied Judge Evans’s motion to dismiss, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
In an opinion signed by Judges Moore, White, and Donald, the Court addressed Bright’s argument that Judge Evans wasn’t immune because he lacked jurisdiction to remove Bright. The key issue, as shown by the Court’s earlier decision in Stern v Mascio, was whether the court was acting without jurisdiction in that case or whether the court was acting without jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case. If the court didn’t have jurisdiction in that particular case but was authorized to consider the subject matter in general, then the “absence of all jurisdiction” exception didn’t apply. But if the court lacked authority to address the subject matter in any case—if the issue was one that the court could never decide—then the “absence of all jurisdiction” exception did apply.
The Court had no tolerance for Judge Evans’s actions; it characterized them as “petty, unethical, and unworthy of his office[.]” But it concluded that Judge Evans “had subject-matter jurisdiction over the underlying criminal proceedings” and therefore was not acting without jurisdiction. Consequently, the Court concluded that Bright’s claims were barred by the doctrine of judicial immunity.