Tower v. Glover
467 U.S. 914 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914 (1984)

Tower v. Glover

No. 82-1988

Argued February 22, 1984

Decided June 25, 1984

467 U.S. 914

Syllabus

Petitioner Tower, the Douglas County, Ore., Public Defender, represented respondent at a state robbery trial that resulted in respondent's conviction, and petitioner Babcock, the Oregon State Public Defender, represented respondent in his unsuccessful appeal from this and at least one other conviction. Subsequently, respondent filed in state court a petition for postconviction relief, seeking to have his conviction set aside on the ground that petitioners had conspired with various state officials, including the trial and appellate court judges and the former Attorney General, to secure respondent's conviction. On the following day, respondent filed the instant action against petitioners in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking only to recover punitive damages on the basis of factual allegations that were identical to those made in the state court petition. The District Court granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the § 1983 action, holding that public defenders are absolutely immune from § 1983 liability, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for trial. Prior to the Court of Appeals' decision, the state court proceedings came to trial and resulted in a finding that there had been no conspiracy to convict respondent.

Held:

1. Respondent's complaint adequately alleges conduct "under color of " state law for purposes of § 1983, in view of the conspiracy allegations. Although appointed counsel in a state criminal prosecution does not act "under color of " state law in the normal course of conducting the defense, Polk County v. Dodson,454 U. S. 312, an otherwise private person acts "under color of" state law when engaged in a conspiracy with state officials to deprive another of federal rights, Dennis v. Sparks,449 U. S. 24. Pp. 919-920.

2. State public defenders are not immune from liability under § 1983 for intentional misconduct by virtue of alleged conspiratorial action with state officials that deprives their clients of federal rights. For purposes of § 1983, immunities are predicated upon a considered inquiry into the immunity historically accorded the relevant official at common law and the interests behind it. No immunity for public defenders, as such, existed at common law in 1871, when § 1983's predecessor was enacted, because there was no such office in existence at that time. Although a

Page 467 U. S. 915

public defender has a reasonably close "cousin" in the English barrister, and although barristers enjoyed in the 19th century and still enjoy a broad immunity from liability for negligent misconduct, nevertheless barristers have never enjoyed immunity from liability for intentional misconduct. In this country, the public defender's only 19th-century counterpart was a privately retained lawyer, and such a lawyer would not have enjoyed immunity from tort liability for intentional misconduct such as that allegedly involved here. Nor is immunity warranted on the asserted ground that public defenders have responsibilities similar to those of a judge or prosecutor, and should enjoy similar immunities in order, ultimately, not to impair the State's attempt to meet its constitutional obligation to furnish criminal defendants with effective counsel, and in order to prevent inundation of the federal courts with frivolous lawsuits. It is for Congress to determine whether § 1983 litigation has become too burdensome to state or federal institutions and, if so, what remedial action is appropriate. Pp. 467 U. S. 920-923.

3. It is open to the District Court on remand to consider whether respondent is now collaterally estopped in this action by the state court's finding that the alleged conspiracy never occurred. Pp. 467 U. S. 923-924.

700 F.2d 556, affirmed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, and in all but the first paragraph of Part IV of which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 467 U. S. 924.

Page 467 U. S. 916

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