435 U.S. 349 (1978), 76-1750, Stump v. Sparkman

Docket NºNo. 76-1750
Citation435 U.S. 349, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331
Party NameStump v. Sparkman
Case DateMarch 28, 1978
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 349

435 U.S. 349 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331

Stump

v.

Sparkman

No. 76-1750

United States Supreme Court

March 28, 1978

Argued January 10, 1978

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

A mother filed a petition in affidavit form in an Indiana Circuit Court, a court of general jurisdiction under an Indiana statute, for authority to have her "somewhat retarded" 15-year-old daughter (a respondent here) sterilized, and petitioner Circuit [98 S.Ct. 1101] Judge approved the petition the same day in an ex parte proceeding without a hearing and without notice to the daughter or appointment of a guardian ad litem. The operation was performed shortly thereafter, the daughter having been told that she was to have her appendix removed. About two years later, she was married, and her inability to become pregnant led her to discover that she had been sterilized. As a result, she and her husband (also a respondent here) filed suit in Federal District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against her mother, the mother's attorney, the Circuit Judge, the doctors who performed or assisted in the sterilization, and the hospital where it was performed, seeking damages for the alleged violation of her constitutional rights. Holding that the constitutional claims required a showing of state action and that the only state action alleged was the Circuit Judge's approval of the sterilization petition, the District Court held that no federal action would lie against any of the defendants because the Circuit Judge, the only state agent, was [98 S.Ct. 1100] absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the "crucial issue" was whether the Circuit Judge acted within his jurisdiction, that he had not, that, accordingly, he was not immune from damages liability, and that, in any event, he had forfeited his immunity "because of his failure to comply with elementary principles of procedural due process."

Held: The Indiana law vested in the Circuit Judge the power to entertain and act upon the petition for sterilization, and he is, therefore, immune from damages liability even if his approval of the petition was in error. Pp. 355-364.

(a) A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority, but, rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the "clear absence of all jurisdiction," Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 351. Pp. 355-357.

Page 350

(b) Here, there was not "clear absence of all jurisdiction" in the Circuit Court to consider the sterilization petition. That court had jurisdiction under the Indiana statute granting it broad general jurisdiction, it appearing that neither by statute nor by case law had such jurisdiction been circumscribed to foreclose consideration of the petition. Pp. 357-358.

(c) Because the Circuit Court is a court of general jurisdiction, neither the procedural errors the Circuit Judge may have committed nor the lack of a specific statute authorizing his approval of the petition in question rendered him liable in damages for the consequences of his actions. Pp. 358-360.

(d) The factors determining whether an act by a judge is "judicial" relate to the nature of the act itself (whether it is a function normally performed by a judge) and the expectation of the parties (whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity), and here, both of these elements indicate that the Circuit Judge's approval of the sterilization petition was a judicial act, even though he may have proceeded with informality. Pp. 360-363.

(e) Disagreement with the action taken by a judge does not justify depriving him of his immunity, and, thus, the fact that, in this case, tragic consequences ensued from the judge's action does not deprive him of his immunity; moreover, the fact that the issue before the judge is a controversial one, as here, is all the more reason that he should be able to act without fear of suit. Pp. 363-364.

552 F.2d 172, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 364. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 369. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 351

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider the scope of a judge's immunity from damages liability when sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

I

The relevant facts underlying respondents' suit are not in dispute. On July 9, 171, Ora Spitler McFarlin, the mother of respondent Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman, presented to Judge Harold D. Stump of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Ind., a document captioned "Petition To Have Tubal Ligation Performed On Minor and Indemnity Agreement." The document had been drafted by her attorney, a petitioner here. In this petition, Mrs. McFarlin stated under oath that her daughter was 15 years of age and was "somewhat retarded," although she attended public school and had been promoted each year with her class. The petition further stated that Linda had been associating with "older youth or young men" and had stayed out overnight with them on several occasions. As a result of this behavior and Linda's mental capabilities, it was stated that it would be in the daughter's best interest if she underwent a tubal ligation in order "to prevent unfortunate circumstances. . . ." In the same document, Mrs. McFarlin also undertook to indemnify and hold harmless Dr. John Hines, who was to perform the operation, and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, where the operation was to take place, against all causes of action that might arise as a result of the performance of the tubal ligation.1

Page 352

The [98 S.Ct. 1103] petition was approved by Judge Stump on the same day. He affixed his signature as "Judge, DeKalb Circuit Court," to the statement that he did

hereby approve the

Page 353

above Petition by affidavit form on behalf of Ora Spitler McFarlin, to have Tubal Ligation performed upon her minor daughter, Linda Spitler, subject to said Ora Spitler McFarlin covenanting and agreeing to indemnify and keep indemnified Dr. John Hines and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital from any matters or causes of action arising therefrom.

On July 15, 1971, Linda Spitler entered the DeKalb Memorial Hospital, having been told that she was to have her appendix removed. The following day, a tubal ligation was performed upon her. She was released several days later, unaware of the true nature of her surgery.

Approximately two years after the operation, Linda Spitler was married to respondent Leo Sparkman. Her inability to become pregnant led her to discover that she had been sterilized during the 1971 operation. As a result of this revelation, the Sparkmans filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana against Mrs. McFarlin, her attorney, Judge Stump, the doctors who had performed and assisted in the tubal ligation, and the DeKalb Memorial Hospital. Respondents sought damages for the alleged violation of Linda Sparkman's constitutional rights;2 also asserted were pendent state claims for assault

Page 354

and battery, medical malpractice, and loss of potential fatherhood.

Ruling upon the defendants' various motions to dismiss the complaint, the District Court concluded that each of the constitutional claims asserted by respondents required a showing of state action, and that the only state action alleged in the complaint was the approval by Judge Stump, acting as Circuit Court Judge, of the petition presented to him by Mrs. McFarlin. [98 S.Ct. 1104] The Sparkmans sought to hold the private defendants liable on a theory that they had conspired with Judge Stump to bring about the allegedly unconstitutional acts. The District Court, however, held that no federal action would lie against any of the defendants because Judge Stump, the only state agent, was absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity. The court stated that

whether or not Judge Stump's "approval" of the petition may, in retrospect, appear to have been premised on an erroneous

Page 355

view of the law, Judge Stump surely had jurisdiction to consider the petition and to act thereon.

Sparkman v. McFarlin, Civ. No. F 75-129 (ND Ind., May 13, 1976). Accordingly, under Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 351 (1872), Judge Stump was entitled to judicial immunity.3

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court,4 holding that the "crucial issue" was "whether Judge Stump acted within his jurisdiction" and concluding that he had not. 52 F.2d at 174. He was accordingly not immune from damages liability under the controlling authorities. The Court of Appeals also held that the judge had forfeited his immunity "because of his failure to comply with elementary principles of procedural due process." Id. at 176.

We granted certiorari, 434 U.S. 815 (1977), to consider the correctness of this ruling. We reverse.

II

The governing principle of law is well established, and is not questioned by the parties. As early as 1872, the Court recognized that it was

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.

Bradley v. Fisher, supra at 347.5 For that reason, the Court held that

judges

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of courts of superior or general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such...

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