Turner v. Raynes

Decision Date31 January 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-2037,79-2037
Citation611 F.2d 92
PartiesJack E. TURNER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. E. T. RAYNES and Bill Edd Jones, Defendants-Appellees. Summary Calendar. *
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Ebb B. Mobley, Longview, Tex., for plaintiff-appellant.

James T. Flynt, Mineola, Tex., for defendants-appellees.

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

Before GEE, HENDERSON, and HATCHETT, Circuit Judges.

GEE, Circuit Judge:

In this civil rights case, plaintiff Turner was convicted of a nonexistent crime and briefly incarcerated before obtaining release by means of a state writ of habeas corpus. His consequent suit for violation of rights protected by the Constitution and by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suffered summary judgment on immunity grounds. He appeals, and we affirm.

Even a summary statement of the facts is somewhat startling. Turner and a neighbor had a boundary dispute. The neighbor applied to defendant Raynes, a Texas justice of the peace, for a peace bond, and Turner was duly required to post bond conditioned on his behaving himself peaceably. It is not disputed here that the sole remedy for violating the conditions of such a bond is a suit by the state, brought in a trial court of general jurisdiction, to recover the penalty amount of the bond. Instead, when Turner apparently continued to behave obstreperously, Justice Raynes issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of "Violation of Peace Bond." Deputies of Sheriff Jones arrested Turner pursuant to the warrant, and Justice Raynes tried and sentenced him to a year and a day in jail for the nonexistent crime. Habeas, Turner's release, and this suit followed in rapid succession.

Sheriff Jones' Qualified Immunity

The court below entered summary judgment for Sheriff Jones grounded in his qualified official immunity. This must be upheld. Under Sheriff Jones' unopposed and undisputed affidavit, he did no more than execute an arrest warrant valid and regular on its face. It is neither alleged in any pleading nor asserted in any affidavit or deposition of record that in doing so he acted in bad faith, or with notice of any infirmity in the warrant. Sheriff Jones' affidavit asserts that when a warrant is issued, he has no choice but to serve it and no authority to release arrested persons until told to do so by the powers that be. This sworn statement is unopposed in the record, except by an assertion that it is conclusory. Conclusory it may be as to the actual requirements of the law, but as to Sheriff Jones' understanding of his duties, it is succinct and clear: a sworn assertion of his belief that he had no choice but to do what he did, that, in fine, he acted in a good-faith compliance with his duty as he understood it.

It is familiar law that persons such as Sheriff Jones enjoy a qualified immunity from suit for official actions taken in good faith. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974); Bryan v. Jones, 530 F.2d 1210 (5th Cir. 1976) (en banc). "A policeman's lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he has probable cause, (or, as here, a warrant) and being mulcted in damages if he does." Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 555, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 1218, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967). It would be a strange and unworkable rule that required a sheriff, at his peril, to determine the ultimate legal validity of every warrant regular on its face and issued by proper authority before serving it. And though the question of good faith will doubtless usually be one for the factfinder, the evidence of it here is undisputed and, indeed, there is no allegation or contention that the sheriff acted otherwise. The real position is that, regardless of Sheriff Jones' established bona fides, he may still be held liable since in fact the warrant upon which he acted was invalid. That is not the law.

Supreme Court Precedent: Absolute Immunity for Judge Raynes?

A more difficult question is presented by the situation of Justice of the Peace Raynes. The summary judgment in his favor entered below does not rest on the basis of his undoubted defense of qualified immunity for good-faith actions 1 but on the higher peg of the absolute immunity from damages enjoyed by judges for judicial acts, except those taken in the "clear absence of all jurisdiction." See Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 357, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978); Crowe v. Lucas, 595 F.2d 985 (5th Cir. 1979). The difficulty in this view arises from the doubtful application of the Supreme Court's "clear absence" test to magistrates such as Judge Raynes; indeed, the very language of the test quoted above comes from the early case of Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 335, 351, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1872), which, like Stump itself, lays great stress in its reasoning on the character of the magistrates there sued as judges of courts of "superior or general" as opposed to those of inferior or limited jurisdiction. Ibid.

In its opinions over the years, the Court has several times addressed the doctrine of judicial immunity, always in a context of the type to be accorded judges of "superior or general" jurisdiction, frequently contrasting this with the more limited immunity to be accorded magistrates of lesser tribunals. Thus, the immunity that here concerns us is one which appears in Court authority solely as a lay figure in contrast to which another is in part defined. One learns little more of it from these writings than one learns of the zebra when told that the giraffe is a spotted animal with a very long neck, taller and heavier than a zebra. All references to it by the Court appear in expressions that could of necessity rise no higher than dicta, since other questions were being addressed. Were they dicta, however, we would accord them great weight because of their source. A careful consideration of these pronouncements reveals, however, that they are not even this, the Court having been most circumspect in its few expressions on the subject. Some examples are instructive.

In Randall v. Brigham, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 523, 19 L.Ed. 285 (1869), the Court's first expression in the area, the Court remarked in the course of its reasoning about the immunity of a superior court magistrate:

Now, it is a general principle, applicable to all judicial officers, that they are not liable to a civil action for any judicial act done within their jurisdiction. In reference to judges of limited and inferior authority, it has been held that they are protected only when they act within their jurisdiction. If this be the case with respect to them, no such limitation exists with respect to judges of superior or general authority. They are not liable to civil action for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction . . . .

Id. at 535-36 (emphasis added).

Later, in Bradley, supra, again in discussing the immunity of superior magistrates, the Court repeated the above remarks from Randall, paraphrasing them slightly:

In considering the questions presented the court observed that it was a general principle, applicable to all judicial officers, that they were not liable to a civil action for any judicial act done by them within their jurisdiction; that with reference to judges of limited and inferior authority it had been held that they were protected only when they acted within their jurisdiction; that If this were the case with respect to them, no such limitation existed with respect to judges of superior or general authority . . . .

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) at 351 (emphasis added).

Next, in Alzua v. Johnson, 231 U.S. 106, 111, 34 S.Ct. 27, 29, 58 L.Ed. 142 (1913), the Court construed a statute conferring limited liability on certain Philippine magistrates as not diminishing by implication that of Philippine Supreme Court justices:

(T)his should not be construed to convey such an implication, at least, as to judges of the supreme court. The section is shown to have had in mind inferior judges and the like by its mention of justices of the peace and assessors, as to whom A different rule has been held to prevail.

(emphasis added).

Most recently, in Stump, supra, the Court avoided even negative textual expressions tending to define the immunity of lesser magistrates, simply enlarging on that of superior ones. The only possible guidance we discern from Stump appears in a delphic footnote comment, picking up and quoting with apparent approval an illustration offered in Bradley :

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 nonexistence crime, he would merely be acting in excess of his jurisdiction and would be immune.

435 U.S. at 357 n. 7, 98 S.Ct. at 1105 n. 7.

It will scarcely do to put too great a strain on a footnote illustration. Even so, from this we can pick out some possible outlines of the Court's pleasure: courts of general or superior jurisdiction are one thing; those of special jurisdiction must stay within it at their peril, so long as the limitation is what we may term a "vertical" one, limiting them to areas of jurisprudence of a particular Kind : probate, bankruptcy, tax, and so on. If this is the note's meaning, it is not dispositive here, where we view a court of limited but not special jurisdiction and one whose limitation is of a different kind, a "horizontal" one: a Texas justice of the peace has a general jurisdiction, civil and criminal, limited essentially to small matters. In this respect, he more resembles a court of general jurisdiction than he does such special purpose court...

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