Here's a hypothetical scenario, loosely based on something that actually happened to some people I know.

  • Bob attacks Alice and injures her.
  • Bob is charged with assault and battery.
  • Trial by jury is waived, and Bob appears before a judge for his hearing.
  • The evidence is clear and overwhelming: he did it, he has no remorse (and appears to be psychologically incapable of it), and he needs to be locked up.
  • The judge decides to let him go due to what he deems to be extenuating circumstances. Alice's friends and family quite reasonably disagree on how extenuating they are, given that nothing about them makes it any less likely that he'll do something like this again.
  • A few months later, Bob attacks Charlie, with a weapon this time. Charlie survives, but ends up hospitalized. Bob is currently in jail, awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder.
  • If the judge had actually done the right thing, the attempted murder would never have happened, because Bob would have still been locked up.

All of the above being true, in the State of Utah, does Charlie have any sort of legal claim against the judge for taking actions that a reasonable person could have foreseen would lead directly to what happened to him happening to somebody?

  • 2
    Was Bob found guilty and not given a custodial sentence or was he found not guilty?
    – Dale M
    Apr 30, 2021 at 21:25
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    Where do judges come from? Would they continue coming from there if there was deep personal liability for every wrong decision? If they stop coming from there, where will you get judges to run trials? Apr 30, 2021 at 23:24
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    When something is "the right thing" in retrospect, that does not mean that it was the right thing at the time. Maybe it looks like the case was clear, but the judge may have had additional information. It is possible that what the judge decided was not the result of an error, but of a specific conscious decision. Then he has actually done the right thing, we just do not understand it. May 1, 2021 at 15:47

4 Answers 4



If there were no extenuating circumstances (or they should not have been looked at as they were not presented), the losing party can petition for reconsideration and appeal the decision as a matter of law. The Judge/court of appeals then reviews the case and decides if the verdict stands. But you can't plead new facts at that stage, so if the losing side's lawyer messed up the case, that's up to them, not the judge. If it was a criminal case, the victim can't force the DA to appeal either, though they can try to get an injunction in related civil cases.

But no person, or for the matter neither party, can sue the judge at all for misbehavior on the bench because judges have judicial immunity. Even when they did something so out of scope, such as a judge ordering from the bench that a lawyer shall be beaten up by police because they missed a court date, they get immunity as they acted as a judge (Miles v Waco). Indeed, let me quote from the first section of that SCOTUS case (emphasis mine):

A long line of this Court's precedents acknowledges that, generally, a judge is immune from a suit for money damages. See, e. g., Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219 (1988); Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193 (1985); Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24 (1980); Supreme Court of Va. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U.S. 719 (1980); Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978); Pierson *10 v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967).1 Although unfairness and injustice to a litigant may result on occasion, "it is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself." Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 347 (1872).


Like other forms of official immunity, judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of damages. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). Accordingly, judicial immunity is not overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice, the existence of which ordinarily cannot be resolved without engaging in discovery and eventual trial. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U. S., at 554 ("[I]mmunity applies even when the judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly"). See also Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 815-819 (1982) (allegations of malice are insufficient to overcome qualified immunity).

In the example OP posed nobody, not even the police, becomes liable for the actions of Bob but Bob himself: Police does not need to help you, even if they know for a fact that something is happening right now.

There's a huge error in the case as presented by OP

You start to work up a case, and points 1 to 3 are fine. But you start to get off the rails starting in point 4: The evidence does not say that someone is to be locked up, it only indicates what the facts of the case (upon which is to be decided) might be. The decision if someone is to go to jail or not is only up to the verdict - which happened in dot 5. Dot 5 however indicates that the judge looked at extenuating circumstances which is also evidence, so point 4 is presented incompletely.

Let me present a more complete version of point 4: Evidence from side A was presented, as was other evidence by side B. To the victim, it seemed that side A (either her attorney or the DA, not clear from OP) had the better evidence and might get a conviction on side B. But the Judge did weigh the evidence differently than the observer and declared a verdict favoring B in point 5 to the dissatisfaction of the victim

The missing bullet between 5 and 6 (a motion for reconsideration or appeal) does not seem to happen. Assuming it did not happen, because months go by, the verdict becomes final and the case becomes res iudicata - the case is closed.

Point 6 is a different and separate crime. The case files of the earlier case can get pulled to show a pattern of behavior, but not to re-adjudicate the earlier case.

Finally: Point 7 does not matter before the law: If-Then hypotheticals can't be adjudicated. Because the counterpoint to the presented argument in this point is: Would the lawyer of Side A have filed for reconsideration and/or appeal, the verdict would not have become final and waiting for the verdict from the court of appeals, Bob might still await the next step of the trial.


As presented, the rundown of the hypothetical case does not present anything that the judge could be liable for but instead shows that side A did not take the necessary steps to ask for reconsideration or file an appeal to the verdict they didn't like.

The separate incident opened a new case, the hypothetical that side B would sit in jail is conclusory.

  • 1
    It sounded to me like the initial charge of assault and battery was a criminal case. Your answer seems to be written as though it were a civil case, and there would be several differences (the victim A would not be the plaintiff, no possibility to appeal an acquittal because of double jeopardy). Apr 30, 2021 at 14:04
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    @NateEldredge the DA representing the state can just as well file for reconsideration or appeal - which is why I said "Side A" not who it was.
    – Trish
    Apr 30, 2021 at 14:19
  • Let me make this clear: when I say there was no doubt as to the fact of his guilt, there was no doubt as to the fact of his guilt. The decision to set him free was explicitly made on the basis of another, completely unrelated factor. (And no, not any of the things you might expect given the current political situation in the USA. It's... complicated.) Apr 30, 2021 at 14:53
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    @MasonWheeler guilt is a factor in a verdict, but you claimed there were extenuating circumstances - which is evidence or reasons that can reduce the sentence or even mitigate it completely. They are not unrelated.
    – Trish
    Apr 30, 2021 at 16:25
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    @ReinstateMonicat they were convicted of bribery and tax evasion, which was the offenses that happened while they were not acting as judge.
    – Trish
    Apr 30, 2021 at 19:53


There is a way to hold a judge accountable for harm caused by a bad decision: vote him out of office. Judges undergo a retention election every 6 years. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission also reviews state judges, and you can file comments indicating whatever problem you want to complain about. There is no way to achieve the desired consequences for the judge by lawsuit.

  • 4
    OP asked for legal consequences
    – Hasse1987
    Apr 30, 2021 at 21:18
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    @Hasse1987 : Is your position that Utah judicial elections are not legal? Additionally, the Title of the Question and the question at the end of the Question are slightly different. This Answer certainly addresses the question in the Title. If you are unhappy about this mismatch, the defect is in the Question and its Title, not this Answer, so directing your comment to the Question would be more likely to result in correction of this defect. Apr 30, 2021 at 21:48
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    The title is a summary of the question. If the actual question is more detailed, the answer should follow those details. May 1, 2021 at 2:33
  • The narrow question is "does Charlie have any sort of legal claim against the judge?" And the answer is no, even if impeachment or non-retention are possibilities.
    – ohwilleke
    May 3, 2021 at 22:05
  • @Hasse1987: We call that impeachment.
    – Joshua
    Sep 8, 2022 at 21:08

No. Holding a judge accountantable will inevitably lead to injustice, as the judge will weigh every decision not on what the law says or what is fair or best for society, but what will be most benefit/least damaging to the judge. Once they have to take risk into consideration the corresponding benefit will naturally follow.

The most we can do without tipping the scales too much is remove them from office, and even that is questionable.


The evidence is clear and overwhelming: he did it

The evidence is always clear and overwhelming... from both the accuser and the defendant's side. Hence the need of a third party, called judge. If the parts agree on the evidence, there isn't much need of a judge. The only reason judges are still required when the sides agree on criminal matters is because we assume people are sometimes stupid enough to say they're guilty when they're actually not. In other words to protect the less fortunate.

It doesn't make sense for a judge to be held accountable for its decisions because you'd simply defer the decision to the next judge. If you could do that, then the other side would do it as well, until each side goes through all the judges in the country. Actually, this is partly allowed, exactly to increase the quality of the sentences, and to increase the capacity of the judicial system. This is the appeal system, but there's always a highest court.

The only "exception", but it's not much of an exception really, is if the judge took a decision illegal, e.g. by taking a bribe. In this case the judge would be held accountable for the bribe though, but if it makes anyone feel better, they can consider that it is because the judge gave a bad sentence.

The argument that Bob would not have attempted to kill Charlie if Bob would have been in jail makes no sense either. Technically it's correct that someone in jail cannot attempt to murder people who are not in jail, but a society in which innocent people are arbitrarily put in jail as a prevention doesn't really need judges, does it?

Your assumption that the judge must have given a bad sentence is simply your opinion, and bears no legal relevance, because nobody has any reason to even consider it. If your opinion would be considered, you would literally be a judge. In all modern societies for your opinion to be considered, you need to get the necessary legal training to become a judge, which serves as a good reason for society to consider your opinion.

  • 1
    By no means is the evidence always clear and overwhelming, nor does it necessarily seem so to the litigants, especially if you mean that each side thinks the evidence clearly and overwhelmingly supports them. Also, evaluating the evidence to determine the facts of the case is usually the role of a jury, not a judge. May 2, 2021 at 15:06
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    @JohnBollinger my bad, the question has a Utah tag. Nevertheless, the question mentions that trial by jury is waived, in which case the judge has to evaluate the evidence.
    – Andrei
    May 2, 2021 at 17:15
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    Yes @Andrei, trial by jury was waived in this case, but that is not the norm in U.S. jurisdictions. In a jury trial, evaluating the evidence to determine the facts of the case is the role of the jury. But this is largely a side issue. In a case that makes it to trial -- whether a bench trial or a jury trial -- it is rarely the case that the evidence seems to each litigant to be clear and overwhelming in their favor. May 2, 2021 at 17:55

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