Pulliam v. Allen
466 U.S. 522 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522 (1984)

Pulliam v. Allen

No. 82-1432

Argued November 2, 1983

Decided May 14, 1984

466 U.S. 522




After respondents were arrested for nonjailable misdemeanors, petitioner, a Magistrate in a Virginia county, imposed bail, and when respondents were unable to meet the bail, petitioner committed them to jail. Subsequently, respondents brought an action against petitioner in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that petitioner's practice of imposing bail on persons arrested for nonjailable offenses under Virginia law and of incarcerating those persons if they could not meet the bail was unconstitutional. The court agreed and enjoined the practice, and also awarded respondents costs and attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976. Determining that judicial immunity did not extend to injunctive relief under § 1983 and that prospective injunctive relief properly had been awarded against petitioner, the Court of Appeals affirmed the award of attorney's fees.


1. Judicial immunity is not a bar to prospective injunctive relief against a judicial officer, such as petitioner, acting in her judicial capacity. Pp. 466 U. S. 528-543.

(a) Common law principles of judicial immunity were incorporated into the United States judicial system, and should not be abrogated absent clear legislative intent to do so. Although there were no injunctions against common law judges, there is a common law parallel to the § 1983 injunction at issue here in the collateral prospective relief available against judges through the use of the King's prerogative writs in England. The history of these writs discloses that the common law rule of judicial immunity did not include immunity from prospective collateral relief. Pp. 466 U. S. 528-536.

(b) The history of judicial immunity in the United States is fully consistent with the common law experience. There never has been a rule of absolute judicial immunity from prospective relief, and there is no evidence that the absence of that immunity has had a chilling effect on judicial independence. Limitations on obtaining equitable relief serve to curtail or prevent harassment of judges through suits against them by disgruntled litigants. Collateral injunctive relief against a judge, particularly when that relief is available through § 1983, also raises a concern relating to the proper functioning of federal-state relations, but that

Page 466 U. S. 523

concern has been addressed directly as a matter of comity and federalism, independent of principles of judicial immunity. While there is a need for restraint by federal courts called upon to enjoin actions of state judicial officers, there is no support for a conclusion that Congress intended to limit the injunctive relief available under § 1983 in a way that would prevent federal injunctive relief against a state judge. Rather, Congress intended § 1983 to be an independent protection for federal rights, and there is nothing to suggest that Congress intended to expand the common law doctrine of judicial immunity to insulate state judges completely from federal collateral review. Pp. 466 U. S. 536-543.

2. Judicial immunity is no bar to the award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act. Congress has made clear in the Act its intent that attorney's fees be available in any action to enforce § 1983. And the legislative history confirms Congress' intent that an attorney's fee award be made available even when damages would be barred or limited by immunity doctrines. Pp. 466 U. S. 543-544.

690 F.2d 376, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 466 U. S. 544.

Page 466 U. S. 524

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case raises issues concerning the scope of judicial immunity from a civil suit that seeks injunctive and declaratory relief under § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and from fee awards made under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Petitioner Gladys Pulliam is a state Magistrate in Culpeper County, Va. Respondents Richmond R. Allen and Jesse W. Nicholson were plaintiffs in a § 1983 action against Pulliam brought in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. They claimed that Magistrate Pulliam's practice of imposing bail on persons arrested for nonjailable

Page 466 U. S. 525

offenses under Virginia law and of incarcerating those persons if they could not meet the bail was unconstitutional. The District Court agreed and enjoined the practice. That court also awarded respondents $7,691.09 in costs and attorney's fees under § 1988. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected petitioner's claim that the award of attorney's fees against her should have been barred by principles of judicial immunity. We agree with the Court of Appeals, and affirm the award.


Respondent Allen was arrested in January, 1980, for allegedly using abusive and insulting language, a Class 3 misdemeanor under Va.Code § 18.2-416 (1982). The maximum penalty for a Class 3 misdemeanor is a $500 fine. See § 18.2-11(c). Petitioner set a bond of $250. Respondent Allen was unable to post the bond, and petitioner committed Allen to the Culpeper County jail, where he remained for 14 days. He was then tried, found guilty, fined, and released. The trial judge subsequently reopened the judgment and reversed the conviction. Allen then filed his § 1983 claim, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against petitioner's practice of incarcerating persons waiting trial for nonincarcerable offenses. [Footnote 1]

Respondent Nicholson was incarcerated four times within the 2-month period immediately before and after the filing of Allen's complaint. His arrests were for alleged violations of Va.Code § 18.2-388 (1982), being drunk in public. Section 18.2-388 is a Class 4 misdemeanor for which the maximum penalty is a $100 fine. See § 18.2-11(d). Like Allen, respondent Nicholson was incarcerated for periods of two to six

Page 466 U. S. 526

days for failure to post bond. He intervened in Allen's suit as a party plaintiff.

The District Court found it to be petitioner's practice to require bond for nonincarcerable offenses. The court declared the practice to be a violation of due process and equal protection and enjoined it. [Footnote 2] The court also found that respondents, having substantially prevailed on their claims, were entitled to costs, including reasonable attorney's fees, in accordance with § 1988. It directed respondents to submit a request for costs to petitioner within 10 days. App. 23. Petitioner did not appeal this order.

Respondents submitted a request for fees and costs totalling $7,691.09. The fee component of this figure was $7,038.

Page 466 U. S. 527

Petitioner filed objections and prayed "that the Court reduce the request of Plaintiffs for attorney's fees." Id. at 33. The court found the fees figure reasonable, and granted fees and costs in the requested amount.

Petitioner took an appeal from the order awarding attorney's fees against her. She argued that, as a judicial officer, she was absolutely immune from an award of attorney's fees. The Court of Appeals reviewed the language and legislative history of § 1988. It concluded that a judicial officer is not immune from an award of attorney's fees in an action in which prospective relief properly is awarded against her. Since the court already had determined that judicial immunity did not extend to injunctive and declaratory relief under § 1983, [Footnote 3] the court concluded that prospective relief properly had been awarded against petitioner. It therefore affirmed the award of attorney's fees. Allen v. Burke, 690 F.2d 376 (1982).


We granted certiorari in this case, 461 U.S. 904 (1983), to determine, as petitioner phrased the question,

"[w]hether Judicial Immunity Bars the Award of Attorney's Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 Against a Member of the Judiciary Acting in his Judicial Capacity."

See the initial leaf of the petition for certiorari. As the Court of Appeals recognized, the answer to that question depends in part on whether judicial immunity bars an award of injunctive relief under § 1983. The legislative history of § 1988 clearly indicates that Congress intended to provide for attorney's fees in cases where relief properly is granted against officials who are immune from damages awards. H.R.Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 9 (1976). [Footnote 4] There is no indication, however, that Congress

Page 466 U. S. 528

intended to provide for a fee award if the official was immune from the underlying relief on which the award was premised. See Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc.,446 U. S. 719, 446 U. S. 738-739 (1980). Before addressing the specific provisions of § 1988, therefore, we turn to the more fundamental question, that is, whether a judicial officer acting in her judicial capacity should be immune from prospective injunctive relief. [Footnote 5]


Although injunctive relief against a judge rarely is awarded, the United States Courts of Appeals that have faced the issue are in agreement that judicial immunity does not bar such relief. [Footnote 6] This Court, however, has never decided the question. [Footnote 7]

Page 466 U. S. 529

The starting point in our own analysis is the common law. Our cases have proceeded on the assumption that common law principles of legislative and judicial immunity were incorporated into our judicial system, and that they should not be abrogated absent clear legislative intent to do so. See Pierson v. Ray,386 U. S. 547, 386 U. S. 554-555 (1967); Tenney v. Brandhove,341 U. S. 367 (1951). Accordingly, the first and crucial question is whether the common law recognized judicial immunity from prospective collateral relief.

At the common law itself, there was no such thing as an injunction against a judge. Injunctive relief was an equitable remedy that could be awarded by the Chancellor only against the parties in proceedings before other courts. See 2 J. Story, Equity Jurisprudence

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