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Friday, August 02, 2019

Judicial immunity can be shocking (sorry)

In the judicial immunity section of my civil rights book, I use a puzzle that I blogged about years ago: A judge in Mississippi cited for contempt and jailed an attorney for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance prior to court proceedings. I spun that off into several hypos (inspired by a comment from Jack Preis), including the judge ordering the bailiff to tase the lawyer and the judge tasing the lawyer himself. The question is where judicial immunity runs out.*

[*] The attorney did not sue the judge, so this never became a real issue. The judge was disciplined--one of many, many disciplinary actions against him.

This story discusses the use of stun belts to control unruly defendants in court. The problem, besides the extreme pain these devices inflict, is that some judges use (or threaten to use) them not to control security threats, but to get defendants to pay attention to the judge or to stand while addressing the court. States vary as to who controls the device--the courtroom deputy acting on the judge's order or the judge herself.

So here is my hypothetical, brought to life. The arguable immunity turns on  the nature of the judge's action: Ordering the bailiff to tase the attorney would be immune, tasing the attorney himself would not be (nor would Jack's example of the judge shooting the attorney for refusing to comply. Giving orders to maintain courtroom control is a judicial function, with bailiffs and deputies executing those orders; tasing someone to maintain order is not a judicial function because not something done by a judge as judge. But at least some jurisdictions give the judge (not the bailiff) control over this device, making its use--not merely ordering its use--something that the judge is doing in her role as a judge while on the bench.

The story linked above discusses the problems in the use of these devices and how they affect criminal trials, as well as efforts to enjoin their use. No one has yet sued a judge for damages for employing the device, which is where judicial immunity would kick in. Stay tuned.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 2, 2019 at 12:10 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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