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USDC: Corrupt PA Judges Have Civil Immunity

A federal district court judge has just ruled that two disgraced Pennsylvania state court judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., are protected by immunity from facing legal action for courtroom acts that consisted of over 6000 corrupt decisions, including shipping children to "reform schools" that had paid off the judges. [There is still potential civil liability for administrative acts accomplished outside the courtroom.] The decision is considered interlocutory from the plaintiffs' perspective, so it is not clear that any appeal lies for them immediately.

The Supreme Court has held that the sacrosanct Double Jeopardy rule (that a defendant may not be charged a second time for a crime for which he has been acquitted) does not apply when the acquittal was obtained through corruption (jury tampering, etc.), since in effect the defendant was never in jeopardy of being convicted. There had been hopes that, analogously, it might be decided that judicial immunity could not apply when there was no judicial discretion (that is, when the judge's decision had been purchased in advance, leaving no room for reasoned application of the law to the facts).

U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo rejected that argument, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Forrester v. White. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that a judicial act "does not become less judicial by virtue of an allegation of malice or corruption of motive." Caputo added the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 decision in Stump v. Sparkman held that the question concerning judicial immunity is not related to the intent of a judge or the extent of the judge's error.

Forrester involved an administrative act by a judge (firing someone because of her sex), so anything written about immunity for judicial acts was arguably obiter dictum. In Stump, the egregious action by the judge was committed without corruption. [He had granted a mother's petition to have a tubal ligation performed on her 15-year-old daughter, whom the mother alleged was "somewhat retarded," the same day that the petition was filed, and without a hearing to receive evidence or appoint a lawyer to protect the daughter's interests. The daughter underwent the surgery a week later, having been told that she was to have her appendix removed.] Justice White, speaking for the court, wrote, "A judge is absolutely immune from liability for his judicial acts even if his exercise of authority is flawed by the commission of grave procedural errors." White's decision did not explicitly hold that corrupt, purchased rulings were "judicial acts." I, along with other professors of Legal Ethics, anxiously await an ultimate appeal on these grounds to the Third Circuit.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.