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The necessary inquiry in determining whether a defendant judge is immune from suit is whether at the time he took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him. Because some of the most difficult and embarrassing questions which a judicial officer is called upon to consider and determine relate to his jurisdiction, the scope of the judge's jurisdiction must be construed broadly where the issue is the immunity of the judge. 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; rather, he will be subject to liability only when he has acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.
Judge Harold D. Stump, the judge of the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Indiana, a court of general jurisdiction, approved the petition of Ora Spitler McFarlin to have her "somewhat retarded" minor daughter, Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman, sterilized. The operation was thereafter performed, the daughter having been told that she was to have her appendix removed. A few years later, after the daughter had married and discovered that she had been sterilized, Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman and her husband brought suit against the state court judge and others in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana under 42 USCS 1983, seeking damages for, among other things, the alleged violation of the daughter's constitutional rights. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the plaintiffs' constitutional claims required a showing of state action through the state court judge's approval of the sterilization petition, and the judge was immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the state court judge was not immune from suit because he had not acted within his jurisdiction, and that the judge also had forfeited his immunity for failure to comply with due process requirements.
Under the circumstances, was Judge Harold D. Stump immune from damages liability under 42 USCS 1983?
The Court noted that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, should be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself. Judges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction were not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts were in excess of their jurisdiction, and were alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly. This doctrine of judicial immunity was applicable in suits under § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C.S § 1983. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, holding that Judge Harold Stump was entitled to judicial immunity even if his approval of the petition was in error. The Court found that the judge had a broad jurisdictional grant under state law and it could not conclude that the judge acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.