history stump v sparkmanIn 1971, an attorney representing Ora Spitler McFarlin presented a petition to Indiana Circuit Court Judge Harold D. Stump, asking to have Ms. McFarlin’s fifteen-year-old daughter surgically sterilized. The petition alleged that Linda was “somewhat retarded” and that she associated with “older youth and young men.” Judge Stump granted the order. He did not give notice to Linda, appoint a guardian to investigate her interests, hear any evidence at all, reference any statutory or common law authority for such an order, or even file the petition or order with the clerk’s office.

Six days later Linda entered the hospital, believing her doctors would simply remove her appendix. Instead, surgeons performed a tubal ligation.

After marrying Leo Sparkman, Linda learned about the procedure Judge Stump had ordered. She and her husband sued the judge, claiming that the proceedings and resulting order were so far removed from normal legal practices that the doctrine of judicial immunity should not apply. Basically, argued the Sparkmans, when Judge Stump abandoned the regular processes that might have protected Linda’s interests, he also abandoned the right to be shielded from compensating her for the injury he caused.

American law generally seeks to protect individuals working in the judicial system—people like judges, police officers, and law makers—and it does so for some very good reasons. The whole point of having a system of justice is to channel the various disputes that arise in a dynamic society into a transparent, predictable, and ultimately conclusive resolution process. But if dissatisfied litigants were permitted to collaterally attack the officials working in that system, cases would have no end, and every worker in the system would have to do her job while looking over her shoulder for the next law suit.

On the other hand, our system entrusts its officers with the power to invade the personal liberties of the citizenry, and certainly some of those officials are inept, corrupt, or both. If you can sue your heart surgeon for gross negligence, why can’t you sue your judge? And if we rely on the principles of liability to keep our surgeons competent, why shouldn’t we regulate our judges the same way?

This week in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case. The Court reaffirmed the basic notion that judges are immune from liability for harms that arise out of their judicial acts. So, a judge who erroneously believes the cop’s testimony over yours, and fines you for speeding, is immune from your lawsuit; but a judge who steps down from the bench, takes off his robe, and punches you in the nose, is not.

The Seventh Circuit found that Judge Stump exceeded his jurisdiction, leaving him unprotected from suit. Basically, he acted more like a nose-puncher than a judge.

However, over vigorous dissents, the Supreme Court’s majority found that for purposes of judicial immunity, the definition of a judicial act should be broadly construed. The opinion laid out a two-prong test: 1) was it the kind of act that a judge normally performs, and 2) did the parties deal with the judge in his judicial capacity. Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, found that Judge Stump, as sloppy and legally flawed as his actions were, had met these elements, and was therefore immune.

Throughout our society we encounter tensions between our communal interests in efficient institutions, and our individual interests in personal liberty. Many commentators have suggested that the Stump decision pulls the pendulum too far towards systemic security. And certainly the compelling facts of this case push us to demand at least some remedy for Linda’s individual loss. But another thing our system does—beautifully and imperfectly—is to constantly adjust for balance. Judicial immunity is only one of legal principles the Court is continually reassessing, and occasionally redefining. So keep watching…