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By: Jake Loken
It is a rare sight to see a judge being sued, so what happens when one is? The process is generally the same as any other lawsuit, but one important doctrine can get in the way: absolute judicial immunity.
The doctrine of absolute judicial immunity was recently discussed in McCullough v. Finley, 907 F.3d 1324 (11th Cir. 2018). In McCullough, residents of Alabama sued municipal judges, along with a mayor and two police chiefs. The residents alleged the judges had violated federal anti-peonage statutes, which prohibit forced labor by coercive means, and the law of false imprisonment by “unlawfully depriving them of their liberty for their failure to pay fines.”
In response, the judges asserted absolute judicial immunity, but the district court denied immunity. Normally, only final decisions can be appealed, but when a district court denies the defense of absolute judicial immunity, this denial may be immediately appealed as a “final decision.” The denial is a “final decision” because if the court would allow the defense of immunity to stand, then the case would end, as immunity would prevent the suit from moving forward against the judges.
In reviewing the denial of absolute judicial immunity, the Court worked through a four-factor analysis “to determine whether the nature and functions of the alleged acts [were] judicial.” The Court found that the judges’ acts were judicial as they involved sentencing the residents to jail time, which is a normal judicial function that occurred in court.
The Court also determined the judges did not act in the “‘clear absence of all jurisdiction,’” because “[a] judge acts in ‘clear absence of jurisdiction’ only if he lacked subject matter-jurisdiction.” The Court made it clear that only in “rare circumstance[s]” would immunity not apply.
When a judge is sued, the judge can raise the powerful defense of absolute judicial immunity. So to answer the question found in the title, “can you even do that?”—with “that” being sue a judge—yes, a judge can be sued, but absolute judicial immunity can stop the suit in its tracks.
If you have any questions about this case, absolute judicial immunity, or other types of immunity, please contact Jake Loken at [email protected].