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State Rule Violations Don't Nullify Judicial Immunity

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 08, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided this week that a state court rules violation does not dissolve judicial immunity.

Before ascending to the bench, Tennessee Judge James G. Martin was a lawyer and sometimes-mediator at a Nashville law firm. In 2008, he mediated Christopher Savoie’s divorce and child custody arrangement. Just months after Martin became Judge Martin, he was assigned to review a restraining order in Savoie’s custody arrangement with his ex-wife.

Savoie was concerned that his ex-wife, who was allowed to take the children to Japan for summer vacations as long as she maintained Tennessee residency, planned to abduct the children to Japan. He got a temporary restraining order to bar his ex-wife from traveling to Japan with the children.

Judge Martin, who was assigned to review the order, openly acknowledged his role as the mediator in the case. Attorneys for Savoie and his ex-wife expressly stated that they did not object to Judge Martin hearing the case, and that they were pleased that he was the judge.

Judge Martin lifted the travel ban on the ex-wife. She later left the U.S. with the children, and with no intent to return.

Savoie sued Judge Martin in his individual and official capacities as both judge and mediator, alleging civil rights claims and state law negligence claims. The district court dismissed Savoie's claims on a 12(b)(6) motion, noting that Judge Martin was protected by judicial immunity for statements made while presiding as a judge, and quasi-judicial immunity for statements made as a mediator.

There are two ways a plaintiff can overcome judicial immunity: "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."

Savoie appealed, claiming that Judge Martin did not have jurisdiction over the case because Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 barred him from presiding over a case that he previously mediated. Without jurisdiction, Savoie argued, Judge Martin was not entitled to judicial immunity.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Savoie's interpretation of the rule, finding that there was no support for the contention that a violation of a state court rule results in a loss of jurisdiction.

Supreme Court precedent was also on Judge Martin's side. In Stump v. Sparkman, the Court ruled, "[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."

While a judge should recuse himself due to prior involvement in a case, failure to do so does not nullify judicial immunity.

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