Stump v. Sparkman
Annotate this Case
435 U.S. 349 (1978)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978)
Stump v. Sparkman
Argued January 10, 1978
Decided March 28, 1978
435 U.S. 349
A mother filed a petition in affidavit form in an Indiana Circuit Court, a court of general jurisdiction under an Indiana statute, for authority to have her "somewhat retarded" 15-year-old daughter (a respondent here) sterilized, and petitioner Circuit Judge approved the petition the same day in an ex parte proceeding without a hearing and without notice to the daughter or appointment of a guardian ad litem. The operation was performed shortly thereafter, the daughter having been told that she was to have her appendix removed. About two years later, she was married, and her inability to become pregnant led her to discover that she had been sterilized. As a result, she and her husband (also a respondent here) filed suit in Federal District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against her mother, the mother's attorney, the Circuit Judge, the doctors who performed or assisted in the sterilization, and the hospital where it was performed, seeking damages for the alleged violation of her constitutional rights. Holding that the constitutional claims required a showing of state action and that the only state action alleged was the Circuit Judge's approval of the sterilization petition, the District Court held that no federal action would lie against any of the defendants because the Circuit Judge, the only state agent, was absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the "crucial issue" was whether the Circuit Judge acted within his jurisdiction, that he had not, that, accordingly, he was not immune from damages liability, and that, in any event, he had forfeited his immunity "because of his failure to comply with elementary principles of procedural due process."
Held: The Indiana law vested in the Circuit Judge the power to entertain and act upon the petition for sterilization, and he is, therefore, immune from damages liability even if his approval of the petition was in error. Pp. 435 U. S. 355-364.
(a) A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority, but, rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the "clear absence of all jurisdiction," Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 80 U. S. 351. Pp. 435 U. S. 355-357.
(b) Here, there was not "clear absence of all jurisdiction" in the Circuit Court to consider the sterilization petition. That court had jurisdiction under the Indiana statute granting it broad general jurisdiction, it appearing that neither by statute nor by case law had such jurisdiction been circumscribed to foreclose consideration of the petition. Pp. 435 U. S. 357-358.
(c) Because the Circuit Court is a court of general jurisdiction, neither the procedural errors the Circuit Judge may have committed nor the lack of a specific statute authorizing his approval of the petition in question rendered him liable in damages for the consequences of his actions. Pp. 435 U. S. 358-360.
(d) The factors determining whether an act by a judge is "judicial" relate to the nature of the act itself (whether it is a function normally performed by a judge) and the expectation of the parties (whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity), and here, both of these elements indicate that the Circuit Judge's approval of the sterilization petition was a judicial act, even though he may have proceeded with informality. Pp. 435 U. S. 360-363.
(e) Disagreement with the action taken by a judge does not justify depriving him of his immunity, and, thus, the fact that, in this case, tragic consequences ensued from the judge's action does not deprive him of his immunity; moreover, the fact that the issue before the judge is a controversial one, as here, is all the more reason that he should be able to act without fear of suit. Pp. 435 U. S. 363-364.
552 F.2d 172, reversed and remanded.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 435 U. S. 364. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 435 U. S. 369. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.