In a highly unusual decision, the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of immunity for a lawsuit brought against a state court judge in Ohio, Bright v. Gallia County.  The case arose after an attorney criticized a judge and the judge removed him as counsel from nearly 70 felony cases.  Although the Sixth Circuit was critical of these “high-handed actions,” it found that a suit to seek to hold the judge “personally liable is not the solution.”

The case involved the issue of absolute judicial immunity from suit.  After a dispute developed between the judge and the attorney, and the judge removed the attorney from all of the pending felony cases before him (he was the only common pleas judge in the county) the attorney lost his job as a public defender because he could not practice before the judge.  In response, he sued the judge (as well as some other entities) under Section 1983.  The Court began with the backdrop principles of absolute judicial immunity, grounded in the notion that “litigants can protect themselves from judicial errors though appellate process or other judicial proceedings without resort to suits for personal liability.”  As a result, absolute judicial immunity can only be overcome in two instances:  (1) when the action is non-judicial, and (2) when the actions, though judicial in nature, are taken in complete absence of all jurisdiction.  The district court had relied on the latter exception, finding that the judge lacked jurisdiction to remove the attorney from the 70 felony cases before him, but the Sixth Circuit noted that “jurisdiction is tricky concept.”  While the Sixth Circuit described the judge’s actions as “petty, unethical, and unworthy of his office,” it nevertheless felt compelled to find that he had subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying criminal proceedings.  As a result, his actions could not fall within the scope of the exception from judicial immunity.  The Sixth Circuit closed its discussion by then criticizing the actions of the judge, but underscoring “absolute judicial immunity is not designed to protect individual bad actors; rather it is in place to protect judicial independence.”  The Court simply could not accept the risk that “the whole system would unravel” if the “threat of suit crept into the judge’s minds.”

Another interesting aspect of this opinion is the Court’s pausing to address the law of the circuit doctrine.  In considering one of the Court’s prior decisions, the Court criticized it as using “overly broad, general language” in the course of drawing “several controversial conclusions.”  Although the prior decision was a divided one, “the majority’s view carried the day and remains binding upon subsequent panels, under the law of the circuit doctrine, until overturned by this Court en banc or by the United States Supreme Court.”  Even though Judge Moore dissented in the prior case, and was the authoring judge of this opinion, she emphasized how essential it is that the Court adhere to the simple rule.  “For generations, the precedential system has been the best method of ensuring consistent application of the law even as this Court predominantly renders decision in three judge panels.  If a panel can discard prior decisions with which is disagrees, the system unravels; each panel becomes a court unto itself; and the parties will have no way of predicting the state of law, their rights, or their obligations.”