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Judicial Immunity

Stump V. Sparkman

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld absolute IMMUNITY for judges performing judicial acts, even when those acts violate clearly established judicial procedures. In Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the Court held that an Indiana state judge, who ordered the sterilization of a female minor without observing DUE PROCESS, could not be sued for damages under the federal CIVIL RIGHTS statute (42 U.S.C.A. SECTION 1983).

In 1971 Judge Harold D. Sparkman, of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Indiana, acted on a petition filed by Ora McFarlin, the mother of fifteen-year-old Linda Spitler. McFarlin sought to have her daughter sterilized on the ground she was a "somewhat retarded" minor who had been staying out overnight with older men.

Judge Sparkman approved and signed the petition, but the petition had not been filed with the court clerk and the judge had not opened a formal case file. The judge failed to appoint a GUARDIAN AD LITEM for Spitler, and he did not hold a hearing on the matter before authorizing a tubal ligation. Spitler, who did not know what the operation was for, discovered she had been sterilized only after she was married. Spitler, whose married name was Stump, then sued Sparkman.

The Supreme Court ruled that Sparkman was absolutely immune because what he did was "a function normally performed by a judge," and he performed the act in his "judicial capacity." Although he may have violated state laws and procedures, he performed judicial functions that have historically been absolutely immune to civil lawsuits.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice POTTER STEWART argued that Sparkman's actions were not absolutely immune simply because he sat in a courtroom, wore a robe, and signed an unlawful order. In Stewart's view the conduct of a judge "surely does not become a judicial act merely on his say so. A judge is not free, like a loose cannon, to inflict indiscriminate damage whenever he announces that he is acting in his judicial capacity."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La FolletteJudicial Immunity - Stump V. Sparkman, Should Judges Have Absolute Or Qualified Immunity?, Further Readings