Adams v. McIlhany

Decision Date27 June 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-1827,84-1827
Citation764 F.2d 294
PartiesDoris ADAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Grainger W. McILHANY, Individually and as Presiding Judge of the 31st Judicial District of Texas, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Spivey, Grigg & Kelly, Broadus A. Spivey, Paul E. Knisely, James C. Harrington, American Civil Liberties Foundation of Texas, Inc., Austin, Tex., Betty Wheeler, Amarillo, Tex., for plaintiff-appellant.

Waters, Holt, Fields & Waters, Bill Wyatt Waters, Pampa, Tex., Jim Mattox, Atty. Gen. of Tex., Scott Lyford, Asst. Atty. Gen., Austin, Tex., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before BROWN, POLITZ and JOLLY, Circuit Judges.

E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge:

Doris Adams, the mother of three men tried before Texas Judge Grainger W. McIlhany, brought suit against the judge under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 after McIlhany sentenced her to thirty days in jail for contempt. The contempt arose from a letter Adams sent McIlhany four months previously intimating that he had dealt harshly with her sons because they could not afford to bribe him. Adams' sons were not required to spend time in prison.

This case is an appeal from a dismissal on summary judgment. Because we find there is no genuine issue of material facts under which the appellant, Adams, may avoid the appellee's judicial immunity, we affirm the dismissal of the damages action. Moreover, finding no case or controversy which might warrant injunctive or declaratory relief, we also affirm the dismissal of Adams' claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.


Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) provides for the reviewing of motions for summary judgment; in pertinent part the rule reads:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law....

The burden is on the moving party to establish that there is no genuine issue of fact and the party opposing the motion should be given the benefit of every reasonable inference in his favor. State of Pennsylvania v. Curtiss National Bank of Miami Springs, 427 F.2d 395, 400 (5th Cir.1970).

Accordingly, on appeal we view all materials in the light most favorable to the appellant, Adams, to determine if there is any issue of material fact. If no such issue exists, we must then determine if the appellee is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.


Doris Adams brought this suit for damages and declaratory and injunctive relief against Grainger McIlhany, the Presiding Judge of the 31st Judicial District of Texas, after McIlhany ordered Adams imprisoned for thirty days for contempt of court. This dispute had its genesis in May and June of 1983, during which time Adams' three sons were facing criminal charges in McIlhany's court. Adams wrote to McIlhany twice, first on May 23, and then on June 8, complaining about the treatment her sons were receiving. She asserted that McIlhany and others were harassing her sons and that others got away with crimes either because of connections or bribes.

On June 10, McIlhany wrote to Adams. He stated, "I received your letters regarding your sons. I regret that they have not seen fit to reform to society."

Adams responded by writing on McIlhany's letter and sending it back to him. She complained again that her sons were being harassed. She also stated, "The only way you can win with the law any more is if you can buy your way out & its done every day. You know I can't pay so you stick my boys good." The envelope was postmarked June 14. At that time charges remained pending against two of Adams' sons. McIlhany placed both on probation, and the record shows no evidence of any proceedings after July 25.

On October 5, 1983, Adams was served with an order signed by McIlhany. The order directed her to appear in court on October 7 to show cause why she should not be held in contempt of court for stating in her letter of June 14 that McIlhany was "paid off by defendants."

When Adams appeared in court on October 7, without an attorney, McIlhany told her that it was her opportunity to present her defense. Adams was sworn in and explained that she had only meant to say that she could not afford to hire a lawyer. She added that she had not intended to make any accusations against McIlhany. He indicated that he did not accept her explanation, found her in contempt and sentenced her to serve thirty days in jail and to pay court costs. At no time did McIlhany inform Adams of any rights she might have or make any attempt to explain the nature of the proceedings. Adams served twenty-eight days in jail.

After Adams filed suit, McIlhany moved on March 16, 1984, to dismiss the complaint on the ground of absolute judicial immunity. The district court construed this as a motion for summary judgment and gave the parties until April 5 to submit whatever material they wished. On Adams' motion, the court extended the deadline to April 16. On April 16, Adams filed her response, requesting that the court either deny McIlhany's motion or hold it in abeyance until she could conduct further discovery. On July 2, Adams filed two notices of depositions, one being to take McIlhany's deposition. McIlhany then moved to stay discovery, and the court granted the motion. On September 7, the district court, 593 F.Supp. 1025, granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. Adams filed a timely notice of appeal.


Because we find no genuine issue of material fact which would support a finding that Judge McIlhany harmed Adams through acts other than judicial acts not performed in the clear absence of all jurisdiction, liability is prohibited by McIlhany's absolute judicial immunity. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment for McIlhany on the damages issue.


Absolute judicial immunity extends to all judicial acts which are not performed in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978). There is no question that those of Judge McIlhany's acts complained of here were "judicial acts" for immunity purposes. "[T]he factors determining whether an act by a judge is a 'judicial' one relate to the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e., whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity." Stump, 98 S.Ct. at 1107. Here, Adams' complaint concerns the issuance of a "show cause" order directing her to appear in court and the order directing her to be imprisoned for thirty days. Both of these acts are acts normally performed by a judge. Moreover, there is no question that in answering the "show cause" order and in her appearance before the court, Adams "dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity." That McIlhany may have been wholly motivated by personal malice does not in the least turn a judicial act into a nonjudicial act. Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1872); Stump, supra.

The four factors generally relied upon by this circuit in determining whether an act is "judicial" also support this characterization of Judge McIlhany's actions; these are: (1) whether the precise act complained of is a normal judicial function; (2) whether the acts occurred in the courtroom or appropriate adjunct spaces such as the judge's chambers; (3) whether the controversy centered around a case pending before the court; and (4) whether the acts arose directly out of a visit to the judge in his official capacity. McAlester v. Brown, 469 F.2d 1280, 1282 (5th Cir.1972). The four-part McAlester test should always be considered in determining whether an act is "judicial"; however, the test factors should be broadly construed in favor of immunity, 1 and it should be born in mind that while the McAlester factors will often plainly indicate that immunity is available, there are situations in which immunity must be afforded even though one or more of the McAlester factors fails to obtain. 2 Nor are the factors to be given equal weight in all cases; rather, they should be construed in each case generously to the holder of the immunity and in the light of the policies underlying judicial immunity. Of primary importance among these policies is the need for independent and disinterested judicial decision-making; immunity should not be denied where the denial carries the potential of raising more than a frivolous concern in the mind of some future judge that to take proper action might expose him to personal liability. Stump, for example, extended immunity to an Indiana judge who authorized the sterilization of a young woman at her mother's request. Stump made it clear that the act of granting such a petition would have been a "judicial act" even if no other Indiana judge had ever considered a sterilization petition; the petition bore sufficient similarity to other petitions--such as a petition to permit a minor to enter into a binding contract--that a colorable legal argument might be based on an analogy with the sterilization petition at some time in the future. Stump, 98 S.Ct. at 1107, n. 11. A future judge perceiving this possibility might be deterred by a potential suit or liability; such a possible distortion of the judicial decision-making process has been uniformly held to be unacceptable, especially when the availability of alternative remedies, such as appeal and impeachment, are included in the balance. 3

With the above considerations in mind we turn to the McAlester factors. First, the issuance of a "show cause" order and citing for contempt are acts normally performed by a judge. Second, these acts are not alleged to have been performed in inappropriate places; Adams was ordered to...

To continue reading

Request your trial
138 cases
  • Johnson v. Kegans, 87-2352
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • April 24, 1989
    ...v. Walker, 765 F.2d 517, 522-25 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1037, 106 S.Ct. 605, 88 L.Ed.2d 583 (1985); Adams v. McIlhany, 764 F.2d 294, 297-99 (5th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1101, 106 S.Ct. 883, 88 L.Ed.2d 918 (1986). See also Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 106 S.Ct. 49......
  • Hicks v. Bexar County, Tex., SA-96-CA-951.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • June 13, 1997 turn, quoted Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. at 362, 98 S.Ct. at 1107. 75. Malina v. Gonzales, 994 F.2d at 1124; and Adams v. McIlhany, 764 F.2d 294, 297 (5th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1101, 106 S.Ct. 883, 88 L.Ed.2d 918 76. As explained in greater detail below, the Municipal Courts......
  • Society of Separationists, Inc. v. Herman, 90-8660
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • April 17, 1992
    ...lack standing to seek prospective relief against judges because the likelihood of future encounters is speculative. In Adams v. McIlhany, 764 F.2d 294, 299 (5th Cir.1985), a Texas judge held a woman in contempt and jailed her because she had impugned his integrity in a letter. We found the ......
  • Loza v. Apfel, 98-50892
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • July 13, 2000
    ...of sufficient severity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197 (5th Cir. 1999); Anthony, 954 F.2d at 293; Sewell, 764 F.2d at 294; Davis, 748 F.2d at 296; Estran, 745 F.2d at 341. If the ALJ finds a medically severe combination of impairments, "the combined impact of ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT