Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal reports on absolute judicial immunity:

In January, federal prosecutors filed fraud charges against Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan, judges on the Luzerne County, Pa., Court of Common Pleas. Prosecutors alleged that the judges sent numerous juveniles to detention centers over several years in exchange for more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from the former co-owner of two centers.

After the criminal charges, several lawyers filed civil suits seeking monetary damages on behalf of dozens of children and their families against the judges and other defendants. They alleged, among other things, that the judges violated their civil rights.

In filings, the judges argued that judicial immunity insulated them from suits. A ruling on the motions is pending. Both judges declined to comment.

Legal experts say the plaintiffs face an uphill battle in piercing the immunity shield. Dating to 1872, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly supported the notion that judges should express their legal convictions without having to worry about personal consequences. In perhaps the most widely cited Supreme Court case on judicial immunity, the court in 1978 rejected a suit filed by a woman against an Indiana judge who had years earlier ordered the woman — who was then 15 and allegedly mentally impaired — sterilized without her knowledge.

According to Arthur Hellman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, judicial immunity doesn’t protect judges from suits stemming from administrative decisions made while off the bench, like hiring and firing decisions. But immunity generally does extend to all judicial decisions in which the judge has proper jurisdiction, he says, even if a decision is made with "corrupt or malicious intent."

In Mr. Hellman’s mind, the rule makes sense. Without it, the courts might be stacked with baseless lawsuits filed against judges. "On one level, it seems outrageous to ban someone from suing a corrupt judge," he says. "But if you allow plaintiffs to pierce the immunity by alleging bad motive, it opens the floodgates."

There is good reason for judicial immunity. Judges, more than any other government officials, determine who wins and who loses in our legal system. They do not pass general laws applicable to everyone like the legislature. They do not enforce the laws in general through multiple levels of supervision, collaboration, and procedures like the executive.

They spend weeks, months and years right in front of citizens with a lot to lose and then tell those citizens to their faces if they win or lose. It is very easy to blame a judge for a citizen’s loss in a civil or criminal trial: the judge was the one who made it happen.

We thus cannot have judges hesitating in their good faith decisions about who loses because they fear litigation. The system just will not work; it’s the judge’s job to determine the loser.

That said, the Luzerne County case is different. We don’t need to dive into the bigger questions of when and how immunity should be denied, because it’s quite clear it should be denied here, for the two reasons raised by a group of former judges who filed an amicus brief in the case:

Application of immunity to judges who admitted under oath to engaging in a criminal scheme that lasted for years would indeed be "monstrous." [Quoting Judge Learned Hand in Gregorie v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579 (2d Cir. 1949)] To find immunity would denigrate the respect of the public for the judiciary, which is dependent upon judges making decisions based on the law and the facts, rather than personal, corrupt motives. Moreover, denying Conahan and Ciavarella the privilege ofjudicial immunity in this case would not risk a flood of civil claims against other judges.

There is simply no way that Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s admittedly criminal arrangements with the detention facilities or their predetermination to detain juvenile offenders before any judicial proceeding even existed, can be considered judicial acts. Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s arguments to the contrary are disingenuous. They necessarily conceded that they acted non-judicially when they admitted to criminal conduct in violation of their judicial oath. Those admissions cannot be reconciled with their present assertion that they acted in a judicial capacity.

Exactly. Wherever it may be that judicial immunity should lie, we know it should not lie where a judge (1) admitted (or were convicted of) corruption or (2) acted wrongfully outside their judicial function.

The "immunity" underlying judicial immunity is — like qualified immunity for executive officials — an "immunity" from being sued. It is a deliberate policy choice to deny some worthy cases even a shot at proving entitlement to relief in exchange for ensuring unworthy cases do not waste judicial time or cause hesitation in the judicial process.

Here, there is no doubt as to the worthiness of plaintiffs’ claims: the judges admitted corruption. There is also no doubt that the problem at here was not solely judicial, for there is nothing "judicial" about receiving payments under the table from a private party.

The United States Supreme Court is already considering a related issue, the extent of immunity for prosecutors who fabricate evidence, in Pottawattamie County v. McGhee. They will see this case coming down the pipeline; let’s hope they understand the robes cloak only those decisions made for the right reasons.