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I'm reading DENNIS v. SPARKS, (1980). It is part of larger reading from Operation Greylord. Part of the decision says:

Judicial immunity arose because it was in the public interest to have judges who were at liberty to exercise their independent judgment about the merits of a case without fear of being mulcted for damages should an unsatisfied litigant be able to convince another tribunal that the judge acted not only mistakenly but with malice and corruption. Pierson v. Ray, supra, at 554; Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall., at 349, 350, n.

The decision also makes reference to 42 U.S.C. 1983, but I have not read it yet. So I may be missing something obvious. (If so, then please accept my apologies).

I'm not clear how it is the public's interest not to hold a corrupt judge accountable. In Operation Greylord the 17 judges willfully accepted bribes; it was not a matter of a "honest" mistake or false accusation.

Naively, it seems to me a holding a judge accountable for willful criminal acts provides a deterrent. (A similar argument is usually made when the state provides a death sentence and executes its citizens). Or maybe the contra-positive is more import - a judge who knows he or she is not held accountable is free be be as corrupt as they like knowing they will probably not get caught.

How is it in the public's interest not to hold a corrupt judge accountable?

  • Judicial immunity does not extend to pitchforks and torches. – Patrick87 Sep 22 '18 at 23:38
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Judicial immunity means only that the judge can't be sued by the people negatively affected by his decisions, even if they were made corruptly.

The idea is that if this were possible, then anyone who lost a case before the judge could sue him, perhaps falsely claiming that he was corrupt. Defending such suits would be a major nuisance and expense for the judge, and some fraction of such cases might be wrongly decided against him (courts do err sometimes). So, a party who said (or insinuated) to the judge that "you'd better decide my case in my favor or else I'll sue you" would have a credible threat, and the judge might be intimidated into giving in. This would certainly not be in the public interest, and so judicial immunity removes this possibility.

It's a trade-off: the harm done by false accusations would outweigh the good done by legitimate lawsuits against truly corrupt judges, and you can't allow the latter without creating the possibility of the former.

However, judges can still be held accountable for corruption - just not through the mechanism of lawsuits by the affected parties. This is addressed within the Dennis decision, in the paragraph right above the one you quoted:

But judicial immunity was not designed to insulate the judiciary from all aspects of public accountability. Judges are immune from 1983 damages actions, but they are subject to criminal prosecutions as are other citizens. O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 503 (1974).

So a corrupt judge can still be prosecuted by the state: removed from his job, fined, sent to prison, etc. But the decision to prosecute him would be made by a state prosecutor, who has no personal stake in matters before the court, rather than by a potentially disgruntled litigant.

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  • Thanks Nate. Here's where I am having the trouble: "... falsely claiming that he was corrupt...". They were in fact corrupt - they took the bribe money and were found guilty at trial (or pleaded guilty). – jww Sep 23 '18 at 0:08
  • Right, in this particular case the judge really was corrupt. The point is that if it were possible, in general, to sue allegedly corrupt judges, then this process would also be used by litigants to sue non-corrupt judges (by alleging that they were corrupt), which would be bad. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '18 at 0:20
  • But I'm not asking about the general case. I'm asking about a corrupt judge who perverted justice. There's no speculation like in the general case. – jww Sep 23 '18 at 0:23
  • Yes. This particular corrupt judge cannot be sued because there is a general rule that it is not possible to sue judges, whether they are corrupt or not. And I described in my answer the rationale for having such a rule. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '18 at 0:25

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