This case requires us to consider the scope of a judge's immunity from damages liability when sued under 42 U. S. C. § 1983.
The relevant facts underlying respondents' suit are not in dispute. On July 9, 1971, Ora Spitler McFarlin, the mother of respondent Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman, presented to Judge Harold D. Stump of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Ind., a document captioned "Petition To Have Tubal Ligation Performed On Minor and Indemnity Agreement." The document had been drafted by her attorney, a petitioner here. In this petition Mrs. McFarlin stated under oath that her daughter was 15 years of age and was "somewhat retarded," although she attended public school and had been promoted each year with her class. The petition further stated that Linda had been associating with "older youth or young men" and had stayed out overnight with them on several occasions. As a result of this behavior and Linda's mental capabilities, it was stated that it would be in the daughter's best interest if she underwent a tubal ligation in order "to prevent unfortunate circumstances. . . . " In the same document Mrs. McFarlin also undertook to indemnify and hold harmless Dr. John Hines, who was to perform the operation, and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, where the operation was to take place, against all causes of action that might arise as a result of the performance of the tubal ligation.
On July 15, 1971, Linda Spitler entered the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, having been told that she was to have her appendix removed. The following day a tubal ligation was performed upon her. She was released several days later, unaware of the true nature of her surgery.
Approximately two years after the operation, Linda Spitler was married to respondent Leo Sparkman. Her inability to become pregnant led her to discover that she had been sterilized during the 1971 operation. As a result of this revelation, the Sparkmans filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana against Mrs. McFarlin, her attorney, Judge Stump, the doctors who had performed and assisted in the tubal ligation, and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital. Respondents sought damages for the alleged violation of Linda Sparkman's constitutional rights;
Ruling upon the defendants' various motions to dismiss the complaint, the District Court concluded that each of the constitutional claims asserted by respondents required a showing of state action and that the only state action alleged in the complaint was the approval by Judge Stump, acting as Circuit Court Judge, of the petition presented to him by Mrs. McFarlin. The Sparkmans sought to hold the private defendants liable on a theory that they had conspired with Judge Stump to bring about the allegedly unconstitutional acts. The District Court, however, held that no federal action would lie against any of the defendants because Judge Stump, the only state agent, was absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity. The court stated that "whether or not Judge Stump's `approval' of the petition may in retrospect appear to have been premised on an erroneous
On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court,
We granted certiorari, 434 U.S. 815 (1977), to consider the correctness of this ruling. We reverse.
The governing principle of law is well established and is not questioned by the parties. As early as 1872, the Court recognized that it was "a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, [should] be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself." Bradley v. Fisher, supra, at 347.
The Court of Appeals correctly recognized that the necessary inquiry in determining whether a defendant judge is immune from suit is whether at the time he took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him. Because "some of the most difficult and embarrassing questions which a judicial officer is called upon to consider and determine relate to his jurisdiction . . . ," Bradley, supra, at 352, the scope of the judge's jurisdiction must be construed broadly where the issue is the immunity of the judge. A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority; rather, he will be subject to liability only
We cannot agree that there was a "clear absence of all jurisdiction" in the DeKalb County Circuit Court to consider the petition presented by Mrs. McFarlin. As an Indiana Circuit Court Judge, Judge Stump had "original exclusive jurisdiction in all cases at law and in equity whatsoever . . . ," jurisdiction over the settlement of estates and over guardianships, appellate jurisdiction as conferred by law, and jurisdiction over "all other causes, matters and proceedings where exclusive jurisdiction thereof is not conferred by law upon some other court, board or officer." Ind. Code § 33-4-4-3 (1975).
The Court of Appeals also concluded that support for Judge Stump's actions could not be found in the common law of Indiana, relying in particular on the Indiana Court of Appeals' intervening decision in A. L. v. G. R. H., 163 Ind.App. 636, 325 N.E.2d 501 (1975). In that case the Indiana court held that a parent does not have a common-law right to have a minor child sterilized, even though the parent might "sincerely believe the child's adulthood would benefit therefrom." Id., at 638, 325 N. E. 2d, at 502. The opinion, however,
Perhaps realizing the broad scope of Judge Stump's jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals stated that, even if the action taken by him was not foreclosed under the Indiana Statutory scheme, it would still be "an illegitimate exercise of his common law power because of his failure to comply with elementary principles of procedural due process." 552 F. 2d, at 176. This misconceives the doctrine of judicial immunity. 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. The Court made this point clear in Bradley, 13 Wall., at 357, where it stated: "[T]his erroneous manner in which [the court's] jurisdiction was exercised, however it may have affected the validity of the act, did not make the act any less a judicial act; nor did it render the defendant liable to answer in damages for it at the suit of the plaintiff, as though the court had proceeded without having any jurisdiction whatever . . . ."
We conclude that the Court of Appeals, employing an unduly restrictive view of the scope of Judge Stump's jurisdiction, erred in holding that he was not entitled to judicial immunity. Because the court over which Judge Stump presides is one of general jurisdiction, neither the procedural errors he may have committed nor the lack of a specific statute authorizing his approval of the petition in question rendered
The respondents argue that even if Judge Stump had jurisdiction to consider the petition presented to him by Mrs. McFarlin, he is still not entitled to judicial immunity because his approval of the petition did not constitute a "judicial" act. It is only for acts performed in his "judicial" capacity that a judge is absolutely immune, they say. We do not disagree with this statement of the law, but we cannot characterize the approval of the petition as a nonjudicial act.
Respondents themselves stated in their pleadings before the District Court that Judge Stump was "clothed with the authority of the state" at the time that he approved the petition and that "he was acting as a country circuit court judge." Plaintiffs' Reply Brief to Memorandum Filed on Behalf of Harold D. Stump in Support of his Motion to Dismiss in Civ. No. F 75-129, p. 6. They nevertheless now argue that Judge Stump's approval of the petition was not a judicial act because the petition was not given a docket number, was not placed on file with the clerk's office, and was approved in an ex parte proceeding without notice to the minor, without a hearing, and without the appointment of a guardian ad litem.
This Court has not had occasion to consider, for purposes of the judicial immunity doctrine, the necessary attributes of a judicial act; but it has previously rejected the argument, somewhat similar to the one raised here, that the lack of formality involved in the Illinois Supreme Court's consideration of a petitioner's application for admission to the state bar prevented it from being a "judicial proceeding" and from presenting a case or controversy that could be reviewed by this Court. In re Summers, 325 U.S. 561 (1945). Of particular significance to the present case, the Court in Summers noted the following: "The record does not show that any process issued or that any appearance was made. . . . While no entry was placed by the Clerk in the file, on a docket, or in a judgment roll, the Court took cognizance of the petition and
Similarly, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has held that a state district judge was entitled to judicial immunity, even though "at the time of the altercation [giving rise to the suit] Judge Brown was not in his judge's robes, he was not in the courtroom itself, and he may well have violated state and/or federal procedural requirements regarding contempt citations." McAlester v. Brown, 469 F.2d 1280, 1282 (1972).
Both the Court of Appeals and the respondents seem to suggest that, because of the tragic consequences of Judge Stump's actions, he should not be immune. For example, the Court of Appeals noted that "[t]here are actions of purported judicial character that a judge, even when exercising general jurisdiction, is not empowered to take," 552 F. 2d, at 176, and respondents argue that Judge Stump's action was "so unfair" and "so totally devoid of judicial concern for the interests and well-being of the young girl involved" as to disqualify it as a judicial act. Brief for Respondents 18. Disagreement with the action taken by the judge, however, does not justify depriving that judge of his immunity. Despite the unfairness to litigants that sometimes results, the doctrine of judicial immunity is though to be in the best interests of "the proper administration of justice . . . [, for it allows] a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him [to] be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself." Bradley v. Fisher, 13
The Indiana law vested in Judge Stump the power to entertain and act upon the petition for sterilization. He is, therefore, under the controlling cases, immune from damages liability even if his approval of the petition was in error. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE STEWART, with whom MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL and MR. JUSTICE POWELL join, dissenting.
It is established federal law that judges of general jurisdiction are absolutely immune from monetary liability "for their
Neither in Bradley v. Fisher nor in Pierson v. Ray was there any claim that the conduct in question was not a judicial act, and the Court thus had no occasion in either case to discuss the meaning of that term.
The Court finds two reasons for holding that Judge Stump's approval of the sterilization petition was a judicial act. First, the Court says, it was "a function normally performed by a judge." Second, the Court says, the act was performed in Judge Stump's "judicial capacity." With all respect, I think that the first of these grounds is factually untrue and that the second is legally unsound.
When the Court says that what Judge Stump did was an act "normally performed by a judge," it is not clear to me whether the Court means that a judge "normally" is asked to approve a mother's decision to have her child given surgical
When the Court says that Judge Stump was acting in "his judicial capacity" in approving Mrs. McFarlin's petition, it is not clear to me whether the Court means that Mrs. McFarlin submitted the petition to him only because he was a judge, or that, in approving it, he said that he was acting as a judge. But however the Court's test is to be understood, it is, I think, demonstrably unsound.
It can safely be assumed that the Court is correct in concluding that Mrs. McFarlin came to Judge Stump with her petition because he was a County Circuit Court Judge. But false illusions as to a judge's power can hardly convert a judge's response to those illusions into a judicial act. In short, a judge's approval of a mother's petition to lock her daughter in the attic would hardly be a judicial act simply because the mother had submitted her petition to the judge in his official capacity.
If, on the other hand, the Court's test depends upon the fact that Judge Stump said he was acting in his judicial capacity, it is equally invalid. It is true that Judge Stump affixed his signature to the approval of the petition as "Judge, De Kalb Circuit Court." But the conduct of a judge surely does not become a judicial act merely on his own say-so. A judge is not free, like a loose cannon, to inflict indiscriminate damage whenever he announces that he is acting in his judicial capacity.
It seems to me, rather, that the concept of what is a judicial act must take its content from a consideration of the factors that support immunity from liability for the performance of such an act. Those factors were accurately summarized by the Court in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U. S., at 554:
Not one of the considerations thus summarized in the Pierson opinion was present here. There was no "case," controversial
The petitioners' brief speaks of "an aura of deism which surrounds the bench . . . essential to the maintenance of respect for the judicial institution." Though the rhetoric may be overblown, I do not quarrel with it. But if aura there be, it is hardly protected by exonerating from liability such lawless conduct as took place here. And if intimidation would serve to deter its recurrence, that would surely be in the public interest.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL, dissenting.
While I join the opinion of MR. JUSTICE STEWART, I wish to emphasize what I take to be the central feature of this case— Judge Stump's preclusion of any possibility for the vindication of respondents' rights elsewhere in the judicial system.
Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335 (1872), which established the absolute judicial immunity at issue in this case, recognized that the immunity was designed to further the public interest in an independent judiciary, sometimes at the expense of legitimate individual grievances. Id., at 349; accord, Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967). The Bradley Court accepted those costs to aggrieved individuals because the judicial system itself provided other means for protecting individual rights:
Underlying the Bradley immunity, then, is the notion that private rights can be sacrificed in some degree to the achievement of the greater public good deriving from a completely independent judiciary, because there exist alternative forums and methods for vindicating those rights.
But where a judicial officer acts in a manner that precludes all resort to appellate or other judicial remedies that otherwise would be available, the underlying assumption of the Bradley doctrine is inoperative. See Pierson v. Ray, supra, at 554.
In sum, I agree with MR. JUSTICE STEWART that petitioner judge's actions were not "judicial," and that he is entitled to no judicial immunity from suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983.
"PETITION TO HAVE TUBAL LIGATION PERFORMED ON MINOR AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT
"Ora Spitler McFarlin, being duly sworn upon her oath states that she is the natural mother of and has custody of her daughter, Linda Spitler, age fifteen (15) being born January 24, 1956 and said daughter resides with her at 108 Iwo Street, Auburn, DeKalb County, Indiana.
"Affiant states that her daughter's mentality is such that she is considered to be somewhat retarded although she is attending or has attended the public schools in DeKalb Central School System and has been passed along with other children in her age level even though she does not have what is considered normal mental capabilities and intelligence. Further, that said affiant has had problems in the home of said child as a result of said daughter leaving the home on several occasions to associate with older youth or young men and as a matter of fact having stayed overnight with said youth or men and about which incidents said affiant did not become aware of until after such incidents occurred. As a result of this behavior and the mental capabilities of said daughter, affiant believes that it is to the best interest of said child that a Tubal Ligation be performed on said minor daughter to prevent unfortunate circumstances to occur and since it is impossible for the affiant as mother of said minor child to maintain and control a continuous observation of the activities of said daughter each and every day.
"Said affiant does hereby in consideration of the Court of the DeKalb Circuit Court approving the Tubal Ligation being performed upon her minor daughter does hereby [sic] covenant and agree to indemnify and keep indemnified and hold Dr. John Hines, Auburn, Indiana, who said affiant is requesting perform said operation and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, Auburn, Indiana, whereas [sic] said operation will be performed, harmless from and against all or any matters or causes of action that could or might arise as a result of the performing of said Tubal Ligation.
"IN WITNESS WHEREOF, said affiant, Ora Spitler McFarlin, has hereunto subscribed her name this 9th day of July, 1971.
"Subscribed and sworn to before me this 9th day of July, 1971.
"My commission expires January 4, 1975.
"I, Harold D. Stump, Judge of the DeKalb Circuit Court, do hereby approve the above Petition by affidavit form on behalf of Ora Spitler McFarlin, to have Tubal Ligation performed upon her minor daughter, Linda Spitler, subject to said Ora Spitler McFarlin covenanting and agreeing to indemnify and keep indemnified Dr. John Hines and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital from any matters or causes of action arising therefrom.
"Dated July 9, 1971"
"Whether laid under section 1331 or 1343 (3) and whether asserted directly or via section 1983 and 1985, plaintiffs' grounds for recovery are asserted to rest on the violation of constitutional rights. Plaintiffs urge that defendants violated the following constitutional guarantees:
"1. that the actions were arbitrary and thus in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;
"2. that Linda was denied procedural safeguards required by the Fourteenth Amendment;
"3. that the sterilization was permitted without the promulgation of standards;
"4. that the sterilization was an invasion of privacy;
"5. that the sterilization violated Linda's right to procreate;
"6. that the sterilization was cruel and unusual punishment;
"7. that the use of sterilization as punishment for her alleged retardation or lack of self-discipline violated various constitutional guarantees;
"8. that the defendants failed to follow certain Indiana statutes, thus depriving Linda of due process of law; and
"9. that defendants violated the equal protection clause, because of the differential treatment accorded Linda on account of her sex, marital status, and allegedly low mental capacity." Sparkman v. McFarlin, Civ. No. F 75-129 (ND Ind., May 13, 1976).
"A distinction must be here observed between excess of jurisdiction and the clear absence of all jurisdiction over the subject-matter. Where there is clearly no jurisdiction over the subject-matter any authority exercised is a usurped authority, and for the exercise of such authority, when the want of jurisdiction is known to the judge, no excuse is permissible. But where jurisdiction over the subject-matter is invested by law in the judge, or in the court which he holds, the manner and extent in which the jurisdiction shall be exercised are generally as much questions for his determination as any other questions involved in the case, although upon the correctness of his determination in these particulars the validity of his judgments may depend." Id., at 351-352.
"Jurisdiction—Said court shall have original exclusive jurisdiction in all cases at law and in equity whatsoever, and in criminal cases and actions for divorce, except where exclusive or concurrent jurisdiction is, or may be conferred by law upon justices of the peace. It shall also have exclusive jurisdiction of the settlement of decedents' estates and of guardianships: Provided, however, That in counties in which criminal or superior courts exist or may be organized, nothing in this section shall be construed to deprive such courts of the jurisdiction conferred upon them by laws, and it shall have such appellate jurisdiction as may be conferred by law, and it shall have jurisdiction of all other causes, matters and proceedings where exclusive jurisdiction thereof is not conferred by law upon some other court, board or officer."
Contrary to the Court's conclusion, ante, at 359, that case does not in the least demonstrate that an Indiana judge is or ever was empowered to act on the merits of a petition like Mrs. McFarlin's. The parent in that case did not petition for judicial approval of her decision, but rather "filed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking declaration of her right under the common-law attributes of the parent-child relationship to have her son . . . sterilized." 163 Ind. App., at 636-637, 325 N. E. 2d, at 501. The Indiana Court of Appeals' decision simply established a limitation on the parent's common-law rights. It neither sanctioned nor contemplated any procedure for judicial "approval" of the parent's decision.
Indeed, the procedure followed in that case offers an instructive contrast to the judicial conduct at issue here:
"At the outset, we thank counsel for their excellent efforts in representing a seriously concerned parent and in providing the guardian ad litem defense of the child's interest. Id., at 638, 325 N. E. 2d, at 502.