Bogan v. Scott-Harris
Annotate this Case
523 U.S. 44 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
BOGAN ET AL. v. SCOTT-HARRIS
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT
No. 96-1569. Argued December 3, 1997-Decided March 3,1998
Respondent Scott-Harris filed suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, petitioners Bogan (the city's mayor) and Roderick (the vice president of the city council), and other officials, alleging that the elimination of the city department in which Scott-Harris was the sole employee was motivated by racial animus and a desire to retaliate against her for exercising her First Amendment rights in filing a complaint against another city employee. The District Court twice denied petitioners' motions to dismiss on the ground of absolute immunity from suit. The jury returned a verdict in favor of all defendants on the racial discrimination charge, but found the city and petitioners liable on respondent's First Amendment claim. The First Circuit set aside the verdict against the city but affirmed the judgments against Roderick and Bogan. Although concluding that petitioners have absolute immunity from civil liability for damages arising out of their performance of legitimate legislative activities, that court held that their conduct in introducing, voting for, and signing the ordinance that eliminated respondent's office was not "legislative." Relying on the jury's finding that respondent's constitutionally sheltered speech was a substantial or motivating factor underlying petitioners' conduct, the court reasoned that the conduct was administrative, rather than legislative, because Roderick and Bogan relied on facts relating to a particular individual, respondent, in the decisionmaking calculus.
1. Local legislators are entitled to the same absolute immunity from civil liability under § 1983 for their legislative activities as has long been accorded to federal, state, and regional legislators. See, e. g., Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U. S. 367, 372, 372-376; Amy v. Supervisors, 11 Wall. 136, 138, distinguished. Such immunity finds pervasive support not only in common-law cases and older treatises, but also in reason. See Tenney, 341 U. S., at 376. The rationales for according absolute immunity to federal, state, and regional legislators apply with equal force to local legislators. Regardless of the level of government, the exercise of legislative discretion should not be inhibited by judicial interference or distorted by the fear of personal liability. See, e. g., id., at 377. Furthermore, the time and energy required to defend against a lawsuit are
of particular concern at the local level, where the part-time citizenlegislator remains commonplace. See ibid. And the threat of liability may significantly deter service in local government, where prestige and pecuniary rewards may pale in comparison to the threat of civilliability. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800, 827 (Burger, C. J., dissenting). Moreover, certain deterrents to legislative abuse may be greater at the local level than at other levels of government, including the availability of municipal liability for constitutional violations, e. g., Lake Country Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 440 U. S. 391, 405, n. 29, and the ultimate check on legislative abuse, the electoral process, cf. Tenney, supra, at 378. Indeed, any argument that the rationale for absolute immunity does not extend to local legislators is implicitly foreclosed by Lake Country Estates, supra, at 401-402. pp.48-54.
2. Petitioners' actions in this case were protected by absolute immunity, which attaches to all acts taken "in the sphere of legitimate legislative activity." Tenney, 341 U. S., at 376. The First Circuit erroneously relied on petitioners' subjective intent in resolving whether their acts so qualified. Whether an act is legislative turns on the nature of the act itself, rather than on the motive or intent of the official performing it. Id., at 370, 377. This Court has little trouble concluding that, stripped of all considerations of intent and motive, petitioners' actions were legislative. Most evidently, petitioner Roderick's acts of voting for the ordinance eliminating respondent's office were, in form, quintessentially legislative. Petitioner Bogan's introduction of a budget that proposed the elimination of city jobs and his signing the ordinance into law also were formally legislative, even though he was an executive official. Officials outside the legislative branch are entitled to legislative immunity when they perform legislative functions, see Supreme Court of Va. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U. S. 719, 731-334; Bogan's actions were legislative because they were integral steps in the legislative process. Cf., e. g., Edwards v. United States, 286 U. S. 482, 490. Furthermore, this particular ordinance, in substance, bore all the hallmarks of traditional legislation: It reflected a discretionary, policymaking decision implicating the city's budgetary priorities and its services to constituents; it involved the termination of a position, which, unlike the hiring or firing of a particular employee, may have prospective implications that reach well beyond the particular occupant of the office; and, in eliminating respondent's office, it governed in a field where legislators traditionally have power to act, Tenney, supra, at 379. pp.54-56.
134 F.3d 427, reversed.