Judicial immunity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The freedom from prosecution conferred upon members of the judiciary when they act in their official capacity.

While acting within the scope of official duties and official jurisdiction, judges must be able to act according to the dictates of conscience, free from the threat of civil damages, even though decisions that are rendered may later be proved erroneous.

In the case of Bradley v. Field[case]Bradley v. Field[Bradley v. Field] (1872), concerning a judge who presided at the trial of one of the men accused of murdering President Abraham Lincoln, Associate Justice Stephen J. Field wrote the defining majority opinion for judicial immunity. He wrote that judges must be able to act upon their own convictions without fear of reprisal in order for the judiciary to maintain its independence. Field allowed that the action of a judge could be challenged if lack of jurisdiction were proven, but in that event, a civil suit was still not possible. A challenge to a judge could come only through impeachment or other prescribed remedy.

Judicial immunity was reaffirmed several times. In 1967 it was held to be unaffected by federal civil rights laws, which allowed damages against any person depriving another of rights while acting under the color of law. In Stump v. Sparkman[case]Stump v. Sparkman[Stump v. Sparkman] (1978), the Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision granting a mother the right to have her daughter sterilized even though the daughter’s consent was not first obtained. The Court held there was no state law or other decision that denied such authority to the judge. However, no judge may claim immunity for an illegal or criminal act if such an act was committed outside the judge’s proper office and jurisdiction.

In Pulliam v. Allen[case]Pulliam v. Allen[Pulliam v. Allen] (1984), the Court ruled that judicial immunity does not prevent either the award of attorneys’ fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act or injunctive relief against judges acting in their official capacity. In Pulliam, two men who were jailed for failure to post bond after arrest for abuses for which they could not receive jail sentences sued the judge. A federal court ruled that it was unconstitutional for judges to require bail for offenses that did not carry jail sentences and awarded the men several thousand dollars in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Further Reading
  • Nies, Robert E., and Ross G. Greenberg. “The Liability of Mediators Is Unsettled.” National Law Journal 17, no. 41 (June 12, 1995): B9.
  • Olowofoyeku, Abimbola A. Suing Judges: A Study of Judicial Immunity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Executive immunity

Judicial codes and rules

Judicial powers

Categories: History