Following up on my post of two weeks ago on judicial immunity in the "kids for cash" Luzerne County scandal, Judge Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued his ruling yesterday, which holds in pertinent part:
For judicial immunity to apply, only two requirements need to be met: jurisdiction over the dispute, and a judicial act. As to the first, a judge is not immune only when he has acted in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction." Stump 435 U.S. at 349 (citation omitted). Second, a judicial immunity extends only to “judicial acts,” not administrative, executive, or legislative ones. Id. at 360-61.
The Plaintiffs argue that because Ciavarella’s acts contravened the Constitution of the United States, he was acting in the “clear absence of jurisdiction” and therefore is not immune from suit. The Plaintiffs cite no authority for this proposition, nor is there any. They allege that Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles brought before him in the following ways: (1) his court or tribunal was not impartial; (2) he failed to advise them of the right to counsel and therefore assure that any waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary; and (3) he failed to determine that the pleas of guilty were knowing and voluntary. While these acts constitute egregious, unjustifiable judicial behavior, they do not make out a case for the absence of jurisdiction. If unconstitutional acts by a judge deprived the court of jurisdiction, and hence eliminated judicial immunity, it could be argued that all erroneous decisions in constitutional tort cases would subject the judge to civil liability. Such is not, and should not be, the case. As to their courtroom behavior, I conclude that both Ciavarella and Conahan had jurisdiction.
Conahan’s issuance of an injunction for an alleged corrupt motive is identical to the conduct the Supreme Court considered when granting immunity in Dennis v. Sparks. Dennis, 449 U.S. at 28 (illegal injunction allegedly based upon corruption). As to Ciavarella, focusing only on the nature of the act performed, as I am required to do by law, I also find that the determinations of delinquency and the sentences imposed were judicial acts. As the Supreme Court has made clear, the alleged motivations, be they corrupt or with malice, are irrelevant to this determination. As to the courtroom acts of Conahan and Ciavarella, I find that they are protected by judicial immunity.
That is not to say, however, that every act alleged of the two was judicial in nature. For example, Conahan’s signing of a “Placement Agreement” would be an administrative, not a judicial act. Similarly, any acts in making budget requests to the Luzerne County commissioners would also be administrative or executive in nature. And the actions of Conahan and Ciavarella in coercing probation officers to change their recommendations is outside of the role of a judicial officer. Probation officers are to advise the court, not the other way round, on sentencing matters. The nature of these acts are not judicial in nature, and therefore judicial immunity does not shield such conduct.
I disagree, but Judge Caputo’s ruling has strong support in precedent and policy going back well before the founding of our nation and the founding of Pennsylvania.
Also, even though Judge Caputo in general accepted the judicial immunity of the defendants, there’s also a strong argument to be made that Judge Caputo had to rule this way, for he had no appellate court precedent supporting a ruling otherwise, no matter how persuasive the plaintiffs’ arguments may have been to him. Some questions are not for the District Court to decide in the first instance.
The opinion — which is very clear and concise — is worth reading by anyone interested in the subject. An article that will appear in Monday’s The Legal Intelligencer is available here.