Judge: Pennsylvania Jurists Immune from Liability for Courtroom Acts

We’ve written a bit, both here on the Law Blog and in the Wall Street Journal, on whether Luzerne County, Pa., judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. would be granted immunity from civil suits filed by juveniles and families who claimed to have been hurt by their allegedly corrupt judicial rulings. (Click here for a recent LB post coverage of the Pennsylvania judicial scandal; here for a recent WSJ story on judicial immunity.)

Well, now we know. Federal judge A. Richard Caputo granted partial immunity to the judges, both of whom have been accused of taking kickbacks from juvenile detention centers in return for sending business their way, in the form of juveniles, many of whom were sent off for weeks or months at a time for relatively minor infractions.

Writing that judicial immunity does not operate on a “sliding scale,” Judge Caputo ruled that the judges are protected by immunity from facing legal action for their courtroom acts. “The degree of corrupt behavior is not the touchstone of the immunity doctrine’s application,” Caputo wrote, acknowledging that his ruling runs contrary to “popular will.” He added: “The doctrine holds that judges with bad intentions, as well as those with good intentions, are immune from suit.” Click here for the Legal Intelligencer story;  here for the 26-page opinion itself.

While Caputo’s ruling does not put an end to the litigation, it does mean that Ciavarella will escape liability “for the vast majority of his conduct in this action,” Caputo said. (Ciavarella is the judge who sentenced the juveniles in the suit.)

Caputo, however, still held that both Conahan and Ciavarella face liability — just not as much as before.

“For example, Conahan’s signing of a ‘Placement Agreement’ would be an administrative, not judicial act,” Caputo wrote. “Similarly, any acts in making budget requests to the Luzerne County commissioners would also be administrative or executive in nature. And the actions of Conahan and Ciavarella in coercing probation officers to change their recommendations is outside the role of a judicial officer.” Caputo wrote that he recognized the “egregious nature” of the allegations, but continuously stressed that was not the true issue.

“This is, however, about the rule of law,” Caputo wrote. “It is about the rule of law in the face of popular opinion which would seek a finding directly contrary to the result the rule of law dictates.”

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