Forrester v. White
484 U.S. 219 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219 (1988)

Forrester v. White

No. 86-761

Argued November 2, 1987

Decided January 12, 1988

484 U.S. 219

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent, an Illinois state court judge, had authority under state law to appoint and discharge probation officers. After hiring petitioner as a probation officer and later promoting her, respondent demoted and then discharged her. Petitioner filed a damages action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that she was demoted and discharged on account of her sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the jury found in her favor, the court granted summary judgment to respondent on the ground that he was entitled to absolute immunity from a civil damages suit. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A state court judge does not have absolute immunity from a damages suit under § 1983 for his decisions to demote and dismiss a court employee. Pp. 484 U. S. 223-230.

(a) Because the threat of personal liability for damages can inhibit government officials in the proper performance of their duties, various forms of official immunity from suit have been created. Aware, however, that the threat of such liability may also have the salutary effect of encouraging officials to perform their duties in a lawful and appropriate manner, this Court has been cautious in recognizing absolute immunity claims other than those decided by constitutional or statutory enactment. Accordingly, the Court has applied a "functional" approach under which the nature of the functions entrusted to particular officials is examined in order to evaluate the effect that exposure to particular forms of liability would likely have on the appropriate exercise of those functions. Even with respect to constitutional immunities granted for certain functions of Congress and the President, the Court has been careful not to extend the scope of protection further than its purposes require. Pp. 484 U. S. 223-225.

(b) Judges have long enjoyed absolute immunity from liability in damages for their judicial or adjudicatory acts, primarily in order to protect judicial independence by insulating judges from vexatious actions by disgruntled litigants. Truly judicial acts, however, must be distinguished from the administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may occasionally be assigned by law to perform. It is the nature of the function performed -- adjudication -- rather than the identity of the actor

Page 484 U. S. 220

who performed it -- a judge -- that determines whether absolute immunity attaches to the act. Pp. 484 U. S. 225-229.

(c) Respondent's decisions to demote and discharge petitioner were administrative, rather than judicial or adjudicative, in nature. Such decisions are indistinguishable from those of an executive branch official responsible for making similar personnel decisions, which, no matter how crucial to the efficient operation of public institutions, are not entitled to absolute immunity from liability in damages under § 1983. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the threat of vexatious lawsuits by disgruntled ex-employees could interfere with the quality of a judge's decisions. However true this may be, it does not serve to distinguish judges from other public officials who hire and fire subordinates. In neither case is the danger that officials will be deflected from the effective performance of their duties great enough to justify absolute immunity. This does not imply that qualified immunity, like that available to executive branch officials who make similar discretionary decisions, is unavailable to judges for their employment decisions, a question not decided here. Pp. 484 U. S. 229-230.

792 F.2d 647, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in all but Part II of which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. *

This case requires us to decide whether a state court judge has absolute immunity from a suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for his decision to dismiss a subordinate court employee. The employee, who had been a probation officer, alleged that she was demoted and discharged on account of

Page 484 U. S. 221

her sex, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We conclude that the judge's decisions were not judicial acts for which he should be held absolutely immune.

I

Respondent Howard Lee White served as Circuit Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of the State of Illinois and Presiding Judge of the Circuit Court in Jersey County. Under Illinois law, Judge White had the authority to hire adult probation officers, who were removable in his discretion. Ill.Rev.Stat., ch. 38,

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