484 U.S. 219 (1988), 86-761, Forrester v. White

Docket Nº:No. 86-761
Citation:484 U.S. 219, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555, 56 U.S.L.W. 4067
Party Name:Forrester v. White
Case Date:January 12, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

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484 U.S. 219 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555, 56 U.S.L.W. 4067




No. 86-761

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 12, 1988

Argued November 2, 1987




Respondent, an Illinois state court judge, had authority under state law to appoint and discharge probation officers. After hiring petitioner as a probation officer and later promoting her, respondent demoted and then discharged her. Petitioner filed a damages action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that she was demoted and discharged on account of her sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the jury found in her favor, the court granted summary judgment to respondent on the ground that he was entitled to absolute immunity from a civil damages suit. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A state court judge does not have absolute immunity from a damages suit under § 1983 for his decisions to demote and dismiss a court employee. Pp. 223-230.

(a) Because the threat of personal liability for damages can inhibit government officials in the proper performance of their duties, various forms of official immunity from suit have been created. Aware, however, that the threat of such liability may also have the salutary effect of encouraging officials to perform their duties in a lawful and appropriate manner, this Court has been cautious in recognizing absolute immunity claims other than those decided by constitutional or statutory enactment. Accordingly, the Court has applied a "functional" approach under which the nature of the functions entrusted to particular officials is examined in order to evaluate the effect that exposure to particular forms of liability would likely have on the appropriate exercise of those functions. Even with respect to constitutional immunities granted for certain functions of Congress and the President, the Court has been careful not to extend the scope of protection further than its purposes require. Pp. 223-225.

(b) Judges have long enjoyed absolute immunity from liability in damages for their judicial or adjudicatory acts, primarily in order to protect judicial independence by insulating judges from vexatious actions by disgruntled litigants. Truly judicial acts, however, must be distinguished from the administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may occasionally be assigned by law to perform. It is the nature of the function performed -- adjudication -- rather than the identity of the actor

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who performed it -- a judge -- that determines whether absolute immunity attaches to the act. Pp. 225-229.

(c) Respondent's decisions to demote and discharge petitioner were administrative, rather than judicial or adjudicative, in nature. Such decisions are indistinguishable from those of an executive branch official responsible for making similar personnel decisions, which, no matter how crucial to the efficient operation of public institutions, are not entitled to absolute immunity from liability in damages under § 1983. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the threat of vexatious lawsuits by disgruntled ex-employees could interfere with the quality of a judge's decisions. However true this may be, it does not serve to distinguish judges from other public officials who hire and fire subordinates. In neither case is the danger that officials will be deflected from the effective performance of their duties great enough to justify absolute immunity. This does not imply that qualified immunity, like that available to executive branch officials who make similar discretionary decisions, is unavailable to judges for their employment decisions, a question not decided here. Pp. 229-230.

792 F.2d 647, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in all but Part II of which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. *

This case requires us to decide whether a state court judge has absolute immunity from a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for his decision to dismiss a subordinate court employee. The employee, who had been a probation officer, alleged that she was demoted and discharged on account of

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her sex, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth [108 S.Ct. 541] Amendment. We conclude that the judge's decisions were not judicial acts for which he should be held absolutely immune.


Respondent Howard Lee White served as Circuit Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of the State of Illinois and Presiding Judge of the Circuit Court in Jersey County. Under Illinois law, Judge White had the authority to hire adult probation officers, who were removable in his discretion. Ill.Rev.Stat., ch. 38, ¶ 204-1 (1979). In addition, as designee of the Chief Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, Judge White had the authority to appoint juvenile probation officers to serve at his pleasure. Ill.Rev.Stat., ch. 37, ¶ 706-5 (1979).

In April, 1977, Judge White hired petitioner Cynthia A. Forrester as an adult and juvenile probation officer. Forrester prepared presentence reports for Judge White in adult offender cases, and recommendations for disposition and placement in juvenile cases. She also supervised persons on probation and recommended revocation when necessary. In July, 1979, Judge White appointed Forrester as Project Supervisor of the Jersey County Juvenile Court Intake and Referral Services Project, a position that carried increased supervisory responsibilities. Judge White demoted Forrester to a nonsupervisory position in the summer of 1980. He discharged her on October 1, 1980.

Forrester filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in July, 1982. She alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Rev.Stat. § 1979, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A jury found that Judge White had discriminated against Forrester on account of her sex, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The jury awarded her $81,818.80 in

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compensatory damages under § 1983. Forrester's other claims were dismissed in the course of the lawsuit.

After Judge White's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict was denied, he moved for a new trial. The District Court granted this motion, holding that the jury verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Judge White then moved for summary judgment on the ground that he was entitled to "judicial immunity" from a civil damages suit. This motion, too, was granted. Forrester appealed.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The majority reasoned that judges are immune for activities implicating the substance of their decisions in the cases before them, although they are not shielded "from the trials of life generally." 792 F.2d 647, 652 (1986). Some members of a judge's staff aid in the performance of adjudicative functions, and the threat of suits by such persons could make a judge reluctant to replace them even after losing confidence in their work. This could distort the judge's decisionmaking, and thereby indirectly affect the rights of litigants. Here, Forrester performed functions that were "inextricably tied to discretionary decisions that have consistently been considered judicial acts." Id. at 657. Unless Judge White felt free to replace Forrester, the majority thought, the quality of his own decisions might decline. The Court of Appeals therefore held that Judge White was absolutely immune from Forrester's civil damages suit. In view of this holding, the court found it unnecessary to decide whether the District Court had erred in granting Judge White's motion for a new trial.

In dissent, Judge Posner argued that judicial immunity should protect only adjudicative functions, and that employment decisions are administrative functions for which judges should not be given absolute immunity.

In Goodwin v. Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Mo., 729 F.2d 541, 549, cert. denied, 469 U.S. 828 (1984), the United

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States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a judge was not immune from civil damages for his decision to demote a hearing officer. We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 1083 (1987), to resolve the conflict.


Suits for monetary damages are meant to compensate the victims of wrongful actions and to discourage conduct that may result in liability. Special problems arise, however, when government officials are exposed to liability for damages. To the extent that the threat of liability encourages these officials to carry out their duties in a lawful and appropriate manner, and to pay their victims when they do not, it accomplishes exactly what it should. By its nature, however, the threat of liability can create perverse incentives that operate to inhibit officials in the proper performance of their duties. In many contexts, government officials are expected to make decisions that are impartial or imaginative, and that, above all, are informed by considerations other than the personal interests of the decisionmaker. Because government officials are engaged by definition in governing, their decisions will often have adverse effects on other persons. When officials are threatened with personal liability for acts taken pursuant...

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