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Has Judicial Immunity Lost its Appeal?

The doctrine of judicial immunity shields judges from lawsuits that target their actions on the bench. But when a judge's conduct is particularly egregious and perhaps even violates someone's civil rights, should the shield come down?

In a piece published today in the Wall Street Journal, Ashby Jones, lead writer for the WSJ's Law Blog, considers this question. It is actively under consideration in Pennsylvania, where two judges of the Court of Common Pleas were accused of routing juveniles to detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks. (For more background on the story, see complete coverage of the affair from The Legal Intelligencer.) 

In civil suits filed against the judges, lawyers are seeking to recover monetary damages on behalf of the children and their families, alleging that the judges violated their civil rights. The judges countered with motions to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that they are protected by the doctrine of judicial immunity. Their motions are pending.

"Legal experts say the plaintiffs face an uphill battle in piercing the immunity shield," Jones writes. "Dating to 1872, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly supported the notion that judges should express their legal convictions without having to worry about personal consequences."

As a matter of policy, it makes sense to immunize judges in all their judicial functions, even when a judge acts with malicious intent, University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman tells Jones. "On one level, it seems outrageous to ban someone from suing a corrupt judge," he says. "But if you allow plaintiffs to pierce the immunity by alleging bad motive, it opens the floodgates."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 12, 2009 at 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)


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