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Judicial Immunity Doctrine Today - Between the Bench and a Hard Place

NCJ Number
Juvenile and Family Court Journal Volume: 35 Issue: 3 Dated: (Fall 1984) Pages: 3-14
P J Roth; H Kelly
Date Published
12 pages
This article examines the origins of the judicial immunity doctrine in English common law, six milestone decisions in the development of American judicial immunity doctrine, and possible responses to current and foreseeable liability exposure.
Three U.S. Supreme Court decisions -- Bradley v. Fisher, Pierson v. Ray, and Stump v. Sparkman -- all reflect an unshaken commitment to judicial immunity doctrine. In a recent decision, Butz v. Economou, the U.S. Supreme Court approved attorney fee liability against judges for wrongs of a strictly judicial nature. The reasoning Economou employed -- a 'functional' analysis of executive responsibilities for immunity purposes -- inaugurated a revolutionary approach to immunity doctrine. In Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union, the functional model of immunity analysis was brought to bear on the judiciary instead of the executive branch. Consumers Union expressly avoided the issue of judicial immunity to either prospective relief or attorney fees, but it made clear that a court may be held subject to prospective relief as regards its 'enforcement' functions. In the most recent decision, Pulliam v. Allen, acts of a strictly judicial nature remain absolutely immune to damages, but the emergent functional analysis exposes judges to injunctive, attorney fees, and, potentially, damages liability for enforcement and administrative wrongs. Responses to the narrowing scope of judicial immunity include a comprehensive program of insurance coverage, such as the program developed by the American Bar Association, and a coordinated legislative effort at the State and Federal levels to reform and clarify immunity principles. Twenty-four footnotes are included.