Is there a case where any court found that a judge's actions amounted to an exception to judicial absolute immunity?
Judges violate the law every day. Permitting a lawsuit over every error would cripple the courts.* But ignoring every violation would render the law meaningless. So the courts have established a middle ground, where people whose rights are violated by a judge's order may appeal that decision, but generally may not file a lawsuit.
That principle is called judicial immunity, and it is nearly insurmountable. A judge who is acting anything like a judge will be immune from civil damages for virtually any actions taken in the courthouse.
Immunity is overcome in only two sets of circumstances. First, a judge is not immune from liability for nonjudicial actions, i. e., actions not taken in the judge's judicial capacity. ... Second, a judge is not immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.
Most litigants cannot satisfy this test. They frequently offer a variety of other justifications, but they are all insufficient:
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.
To oversimplify, this means you cannot sue a judge unless:
- the judge wasn't being a judge when she injured you (e.g., the judge rear-ended you on the highway, she never paid you for fixing her roof, she trespassed on your property); or
- the judge was being a judge when she injured you, but she wasn't allowed to (e.g., the judge sent you to jail when she hadn't been sworn into office yet, the judge
To further oversimplify, you this means you cannot sue a judge for actions taken while she's wearing the robe, unless there are truly bizarre circumstances. The more likely it is that many judges do X, the less likely it is that you can sue for X.
You've indicated that you're most interested in a hypothetical in which a criminal defendant sues a judge for raising his bond from $15,000 to $200,000 because he missed a court date.
The judge is very clearly going to win this lawsuit.
First, because setting bond is very obviously a judicial act. Regalado v. City of Edinburg, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38602, *34 (S.D. Tex.) ("Setting of bond is clearly within the judicial role."). So unless there is some undisclosed fact establishing that this judge isn't a real judge, or that the judge has no conceivable reason to be hearing this case, she is protected by judicial immunity.
Second, because increasing bond was probably not a violation of the defendant's rights. The judge initially set a low bond, presumably on the assumption that the defendant was not a major threat to safety and was likely to follow her orders to appear in court. But the defendant skipped out on court, so now the judge knows she was wrong. The correct course of action in that case is to increase the bond to an amount that will ensure the defendant does not go missing again.
All that said, there are rare cases where courts have found that judicial immunity did not apply. In Harper v. Merckle, 638 F.2d 848 (5th Cir. 1981), for instance, the plaintiff tried to deliver an alimony check to his ex-wife at the courthouse where she worked for a judge, but a judge who overheard him dropping off the check tried to call an on-the-spot hearing to get his address; the plaintiff refused to be sworn in and left, so the judge had him arrested, held him in contempt for walking away, and sentenced him to three days in jail. Because the divorce case was closed, came from a different county, and had nothing to do with the relationship between the plaintiff and the judge, the court found that the judge was not performing a judicial function when he called the impromptu hearing, and the judge was therefore not entitled to judicial immunity.
*Some people would be comfortable with this. Naturally, the courts are not.
It is hard to be specific because the question doesn't clarify what kind of conduct might or might not be subject to judicial immunity and the law, especially the law of exceptions of general rules, tends to be highly fact specific. The law does not operate at a high level of generality.
Judicial immunity is an absolute bar to civil lawsuits seeking money damages from a judge for acts (arguably for a judge's "discretionary acts" or "judicial acts") in the judge's official capacity.
Judicial immunity is not immunity (1) from criminal charges, (2) from judicial misconduct charges from a judicial regulatory body, (3) from an impeachment proceeding, (4) from civil lawsuits for non-monetary relief (especially regarding non-discretionary duties), or (5) from civil lawsuits not arising from the official capacity actions of a judge (e.g., a car accident while driving to get groceries, or a civil assault lawsuit arising from a fight at a pub).
The definition of what constitutes non-official capacity actions includes, in some circumstances (only), (1) actions not done in good faith, (2) criminal acts, (3) acts that the judge had no authority or jurisdiction to carry out, and (4) non-discretionary actions of an administrative or ministerial nature.
One recent example of the lack of authority or jurisdiction exception involved a judge personally putting minor children in a custody case in jail and strip searching them:
Plaintiff sued a Missouri judge for putting his kids in jail twice, once after a custody hearing and again after ordering law enforcement to pick them up in Louisiana. The complaint alleged that Defendant’s action of placing Plaintiff’s children in jail and then later in a juvenile-detention facility violated their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Defendant argued that he should receive absolute immunity, but the district court disagreed and ruled that the case could proceed. At issue on appeal is whether judicial immunity shields these acts. The Eighth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The court explained that Defendant’s decision to personally escort the kids to jail took what would otherwise be a judicial act too far. Judges have the authority to order an officer or a bailiff to escort an unruly litigant to jail. The court wrote that Defendant crossed the line; however, when he personally escorted the kids to jail, stood there while they removed their clothes and belongings, and personally came back an hour later to release them. Further, the court explained that here, even if Defendant had no “express authority” to issue the pick-up order, he is immune because he had jurisdiction to issue one. He cannot be sued, in other words, no matter how erroneous his interpretation of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act may be.
(Note that Texas is in the 5th Circuit and not the 8th Circuit, so this precedent, while persuasive, is not binding authority in Texas.)
The non-official capacity lack of immunity exception would also apply to most claims by someone who had an employee-employer relationship with the judge (e.g. sexual harassment cases), or if there is an immunity from those claims, it doesn't arise from judicial immunity which protects a judge only from liability related to judicial acts, not all actions of a person who happens to be a judge.
Apologies for the all caps capitalization which is the U.S. Justice Department source providing an overview of judicial immunity, I have added paragraph breaks for ease of reading and put key language in bold:
THE ISSUES OF JUDICIAL IMMUNITY FROM CIVIL LIABILITY FOR ACTS PERFORMED BY A JUDGE IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AND THE RIGHT OF A JUDGE TO HAVE LEGAL REPRESENTATION IN THE EVENT HE IS SUED ARE CHANGING RAPIDLY. JUDICIAL IMMUNITY HAS BEEN EXPANDED TO INCLUDE JUDGES, TRADITIONAL QUASI-JUDICIAL INDIVIDUALS, AND SOME COURT-RELATED PERSONNEL, SUCH AS COURT CLERKS AND COURT REPORTERS.
A NUMBER OF REASONS GIVEN FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH A PROVISION FOR JUDGES HAVE INCLUDED THE JUDICIARY'S DUTY TO THE PUBLIC ONLY, AND NOT TO INDIVIDUALS; THE AVAILABILITY OF OTHER OPPORTUNITIES FOR REVIEW OF ADVERSE DECISIONS; AND PREVENTION OF UNDUE INFLUENCE ON JUDICIAL DECISIONS THROUGH FEAR OF SUBSEQUENT SUITS.
THE COLLECTIVE CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS HAVE PROVIDED A FOUNDATION FOR LEGAL ACTIONS AGAINST STATE OFFICIALS BASED ON VIOLATION OF INDIVIDUAL CIVIL RIGHTS. AS A RESULT, LIMITED EXCEPTIONS TO THE APPLICATION OF IMMUNITY HAVE DEVELOPED IN TWO BROAD AREAS BASED ON THE TYPE OF RELIEF SOUGHT AND THE NATURE OF THE ACT OR MISDEED. SUPREME COURT RULINGS HAVE HELD THAT IMMUNITY IS RESTRICTED TO DAMAGE SUITS AND DOES NOT EXTEND TO SUITS FOR PROTECTIVE, EQUITABLE, OR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF. IN ADDITION, VARIOUS TYPES OF ACTS ARE NO LONGER RECOGNIZED AS JUDICIAL CONDUCT WITHIN THE PROTECTION OF IMMUNITY: (1) ACTS SHOWING LACK OF GOOD FAITH; (2) ACTS CRIMINAL IN NATURE; (3) ACTS IN ABSENCE OF AUTHORITY OR IN EXCESS OF JURISDICTION; AND (4) ACTS OF AN ADMINISTRATIVE OR MINISTERIAL NATURE.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF EACH OF THESE EXCEPTIONS IS SUMMARIZED. THE DOCTRINE OF IMMUNITY IS ALSO APPLIED TO MOST COURT-RELATED POSITIONS, AS THESE JOBS ARE DIRECTLY LINKED TO A JUDGE'S FUNCTION AND TO HIS ORDERS. THE GENERAL RULE WHICH HAS BEEN APPLIED TO THESE PERSONS IS THAT IF THEY ACT PURSUANT TO A JUDICIAL MANDATE THAT IS WITHIN THE COURT' JURISDICTION, AND THAT HAS NO OBVIOUS DEFECTS, THEN THEY ARE PROTECTED FROM CIVIL LIABILITY BY THE IMMUNITY DOCTRINE IF THEIR DUTIES ARE EXECUTED IN A PROPER MANNER.
A FINAL SECTION OUTLINES PROVISIONS FOR LEGAL REPRESENTATION FOR JUDGES SUED IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES IN 53 STATES AND TERRITORIES. DATA COVER THREE AREAS: (1) HOW LEGAL REPRESENTATION IS PROVIDED BY EACH STATE FOR JUDGES WHO ARE SUED; (2) WHO PAYS FOR OFFICIAL OR SUBSTITUTE LEGAL COUNSEL; AND (3) RECENT CASES AND RELEVANT COMMENTS ABOUT EACH STATE. THE OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL SERVES AS OFFICIAL COUNSEL IN ALL BUT SIX STATES AND ONE TERRITORY. WITH TWO EXCEPTIONS, LOCAL OR STATE FUNDS COVER THE COSTS OF OFFICIAL COUNSEL. SIX STATES HAVE PROVISIONS REQUIRING INDIVIDUAL JUDGES TO PAY FOR ANY SUBSTITUTE COUNSEL IF THE OFFICIAL COUNSEL DECLINES. (VDA)
Four of the leading U.S. Supreme Court cases on judicial immunity can be found in the Wikipedia article on the topic.