Judges generally are entitled to absolute immunity from 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for damages. While the doctrine is well settled, two federal court decisions in 2014 have reached different conclusions about whether a judge can be held liable for non-judicial conduct that took place outside of the courtroom.
Policy Underlying Absolute Judicial ImmunityAbsolute immunity serves the public interest by freeing judges to perform their judicial function without fear of personal liability. Beginning in medieval times, absolute immunity for judges from suits by disgruntled litigants helped to establish appeals as the vehicle for correcting judicial errors, thereby protecting judicial independence. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219 (1988). The Supreme Court summarized the reasoning: “If judges were personally liable for erroneous decisions, the resulting avalanche of suits, most of them frivolous but vexatious, would provide powerful incentives for judges to avoid rendering decisions likely to provoke such suits.” Id. at 226–27 (further citation omitted). Because of the public interest in a judiciary free to act on disputes within their jurisdiction without fear of later suits by dissatisfied litigants, judicial immunity extends even to judges allegedly motivated by malice or corruption. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967).