The Immune System

May 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that a judge is sued for some action he or she took in the course of performing official duties. But it does happen, and the most recent case was decided by the MSSC in Weill v. Bailey, on April 6, 2017. In that case, a circuit judge, Weill, was sued by a former employee, Bailey, over language the judge had included about her in a judgment, which language she claimed to be libelous. The special judge assigned to the case refused to grant Weill’s motion to dismiss, and he appealed. The MSSC reversed and remanded for a dismissal judgment.

Since Justice Coleman’s opinion sets out an exposition of the law on the point, I am posting it here because you might find it useful:

¶18. Mississippi has long recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity. Wheeler v. Stewart, 798 So. 2d 386, 392 (¶ 14) (Miss. 2001). The Court has declared that “public policy mandates that a judge should have the power to make decisions without having to worry about being held liable for his actions.” Id. (quoting Loyacono v. Ellis, 571 So. 2d 237, 238 (Miss. 1990)). Indeed, the Court “fully recognizes that the best interests of the people and public order require that judges be immune from civil liability.” Loyacono, 571 So. 2d at 238.

¶19. The Loyacono Court recognized that the United States Supreme Court addressed the doctrine of judicial immunity in Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). The Stump Court held that “judges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly.” Stump, 435 U.S. at 355-56 (quoting Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 351 (1871)).

¶20. In Loyacono, an attorney filed suit against a circuit court judge contending that, as a direct and proximate result of the willful, intentional, or negligent acts of the circuit court judge, he was falsely prosecuted, arrested, incarcerated, and denied due process. Loyacono, 571 So. 2d at 237. The trial court granted the circuit court judge’s motion to dismiss, finding that the doctrine of judicial immunity protected the circuit court judge even if he was motivated by malice. Id. The Court affirmed. Id. at 239.

¶21. The Loyacono Court acknowledged that, while the holding in DeWitt v. Thompson, 7 So. 2d 529, 532 (Miss. 1942) [Fn 3], seemed to leave open the door as to whether judicial immunity applies in the face of malice, “[p]ublic policy mandates that a judge should have the power to make decisions without having to worry about being held liable for his actions, and, thankfully, most judges do not exhibit the type of behavior we find in this instance.” Loyacono, 571 So. 2d at 238. Accordingly, the “Court fully recognizes that the best interests of the people and public order require that judges be immune from civil liability. There are other remedies [Fn 4] for the correction of such behavior.” Id.

[Fn 3]:
In DeWitt v. Thompson, 7 So. 2d 529, 532 (Miss. 1942), the Court stated:

In [Bradley] the [United States Supreme] Court went farther, and held that courts of general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are charged to have been done maliciously or corruptly. We do not go that far in this case, because, as stated, there was no showing of either corruption or excess of jurisdiction.

[Fn 4]:
“The primary remedy available to those who believe a judge has acted either contrary to or in excess of his/her authority is to file a complaint with the [Mississippi Judicial Performance] Commission.” Mississippi Comm’n of Judicial Performance v. Russell, 691 So. 2d 929, 947 (Miss. 1997).

¶22. The Loyacono Court stated: “There is a distinction between excess of jurisdiction and a complete absence of jurisdiction.” Id. “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.” Bradley, 80 U.S. at 351-52. Thus, “[t]he key factor in determining whether judicial immunity exists is whether at the time the judge took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him.” Wheeler, 798 So. 2d at 392 (¶ 15).

¶23. Bailey argues that Judge Weill is not afforded judicial immunity because his actions were taken in a complete absence of jurisdiction. Bailey contends that Judge Weill had no jurisdictional authority over her individually when he entered the February 2015 orders. However, the question is not whether Judge Weill had jurisdiction over Bailey, individually; the inquiry is “whether at the time the judge took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him.” See id. (emphasis added).

¶24. The challenged act is the entry of the February 2015 orders disposing of Kelly’s motions to recuse and for clarification in multiple criminal cases. Judicial immunity exists in the present case because at the time Judge Weill entered the February 2015 orders, he had jurisdiction over the multiple criminal matters before him.

¶25. Bailey’s complaint and amended complaint did not allege that Judge Weill lacked jurisdiction over the criminal matters in which he entered the February 2015 orders. Thus, there is no dispute that, at the time Judge Weill entered the February 2015 orders in his capacity as circuit court judge, he had jurisdiction over the criminal matters before him. Instead, Bailey argues that Judge Weill’s statement that she had been reprimanded forimproper ex parte communications in the February 2015 orders was neither necessary or relevant to the issue before Judge Weill. However, the Court has not recognized a relevance exception to the judicial immunity doctrine. “In order to determine the existence of judicial
immunity one must look to whether at the time the judge took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him.” Loyacono, 571 So. 2d at 238 (citing Stump, 435 U.S. at 356). It is of no consequence that the February 2015 orders disposing of a motion in criminal matters properly before him included a factual finding that mentioned Bailey.

¶26. Bailey also argues that Judge Weill lost his judicial immunity because his alleged defamation of her constituted a nonjudicial act made in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. However, the Loyacono Court rejected the argument that allegations of malice remove the protection of judicial immunity.

¶27. We hold that the trial court erred by failing to grant Judge Weill’s motion to dismiss Bailey’s complaint and amended complaint based on judicial immunity.

CONCLUSION
¶28. The Court has held that judges of courts of general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly. Loyacono, 571 So. 2d at 238. Here, Judge Weill entered the February 2015 orders disposing of the public defender’s motions to recuse and for clarification in four criminal matters that were properly before him. Even though Bailey alleged that the language contained in the orders contained libelous language, Judge Weill is afforded judicial immunity from Bailey’s civil action because at the time he entered the February 2015 orders, he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him. See id; Wheeler, 798 So. 2d at 392 (¶ 14). As a result, the Court reverses the trial court’s order and remands the case for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

Justice King, joined by Justice Kitchens, specially concurred, agreeing with the result in this particular case but cautioning that in another fact situation the role of malice in the judge’s use of language needs to be addressed.

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