The (Judicial) Immune System

June 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

Timothy Pryer, a state prisoner, filed a public records request. When he received a response he deemed inadequate, he filed suit against several individuals for damages per MCA § 25-61-15. One of the defendants was a circuit judge whose responses to his request Pryer considered to be insufficient.

In response, the judge filed a R12(b)(6) motion to dismiss either on the basis of judicial immunity or for statute of limitations. The chancellor granted the motion, and Pryer appealed.

The MSSC affirmed in Pryer v. Gardner, decided May 17, 2018. Since the case includes a lucid discussion of when and how judicial immunity applies, I thought I would excerpt it here. Justice Kitchens wrote for the unanimous court:

¶8. The doctrine of judicial immunity long has been recognized in Mississippi. Newsome v. Shoemake, 234 So. 3d 1215, 1223 (Miss. 2017). “[T]he best interests of the people and public order require that judges be immune from civil liability.” Loyacano v. Ellis, 571 So. 2d 237, 238 (Miss. 1990). It is the sound public policy of this state that judges are empowered to make decisions in the absence of fear that they will be held liable for their actions. Id. A person who believes a judge has acted contrary to or in excess of his or her authority may, however, file a complaint with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1225.

¶9. In Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the United States Supreme 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.” In Loyacano, this Court recognized that, in the prior case of DeWitt v. Thompson, 192 Miss. 615, 7 So. 2d 529, 532 (1942), the Court seemingly left for another day the question of whether judicial immunity applies to malicious or corrupt acts. But Loyacano ultimately held that “[t]he doctrine of judicial immunity is fully recognized in Mississippi.” Loyacano, 571 So. 2d at 238. In Newsome, the Court held that, notwithstanding the plaintiff’s allegation that a judge was corrupt in his handling of a conservatorship, the judge was immune from civil liability. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1225. So judicial immunity in Mississippi extends even to acts of malice or corruption. The reason is that it is “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.” Id.(quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 355-56, 98 S. Ct. 1099). Further:

It is a judge’s duty to decide all cases within his jurisdiction that are brought before him, including controversial cases that arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants. His errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption. Imposing such a burden on judges would contribute not to principled and fearless decision- making but to intimidation. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554, 87 S. Ct. 1213, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288 (1967).

¶10. Judicial immunity does not extend to acts taken in the clear absence of jurisdiction. Weill v. Bailey, 227 So. 3d 931, 936 (Miss. 2017). However, judicial acts in excess of jurisdiction are subject to judicial immunity. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1223. In Newsome, the Court provided the following explanation of this distinction:

In Bradley, the Court illustrated the distinction between lack of jurisdiction and excess of jurisdiction with the following examples: if a probate judge, with jurisdiction over only wills and estates, should try a criminal case, he would be acting in the clear absence of jurisdiction and would not be immune from liability for his action; on the other hand, if a judge of a criminal court should convict a defendant of a nonexistent crime, he would merely be acting in excess of his jurisdiction and would be immune.

Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1224 (quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 357 n.7, 98 S. Ct. 1099 (citing Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 352, 20 L. Ed. 646 (1871)). We have said that “[i]n 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.” Loyacano, 571 So. 2d at 238 (quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 356, 98 S. Ct. 1099).


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