Can I Sue a Judge?
In very specific situations, suing a judge may very well be possible. Most of the time, however, judges have absolute immunity from civil cases, which protects them from personal lawsuits. The principle of absolute immunity shields government officials from being sued while they serve in an official capacity and it extends to judicial officers, including court judges.
In a hypothetical scenario, you have sued your ex-partner for child support and asked the court to provide monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief in your favor. The family law judge acts with prejudice against you, claiming that you have no right to bully your former lover for money. You are infuriated by the judge's decision because they completely ignored all of your evidence and testimony, which proved your case.
Disgusted by the judge's actions, you ponder whether they acted corruptly and consider taking legal action against them personally. Alas, the doctrine of judicial immunity stops you in your tracks. So, what can you do?
A civil rights attorney can assess whether a judge's prejudicial action against you potentially violates the law and whether you can sue that judge without running into an immunity roadblock.
Before Suing Your Judge
Even where state judges and federal judges have absolute immunity, you can use the law to:
- Ask to have the judge disqualified or recused
- Submit a trial court or lower circuit court ruling to an appellate court
- Submit a court of appeals decision to the state or the U. S. Supreme Court
While the process varies between states, challenging or disqualifying a judge allows you to request a new judge, sometimes by right, because the judge assigned to your case is prejudiced or otherwise unfit to hear your case.
A judge may choose to recuse themselves if they acknowledge a personal conflict of interest, such as when a blood relationship exists between the judge and the person that you sued. If the judge isn't willing to step aside, you may have the right to force them to recuse themselves.
The appeals process likewise allows you to take your case to a new judge or panel of judges sitting in a higher court. Because the state and federal judiciary systems hear different cases, the appeals process varies depending on the nature of your claim. For example, federal courts, and ultimately the U. S. Supreme Court, may hear cases involving constitutional rights and civil rights.
What Else Can You Do?
Outside of using the court system itself, another workaround involves filing a complaint directly with a state agency. A few examples include:
- CA Commission on Judicial Performance
- NYS Commission on Judicial Conduct
- TX State Commission on Judicial Conduct
- State of Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission
While many judges, including federal district court judges and higher-level state court officers, are appointed by executives such as the president and the various state governors, most state judicial officials are elected by the people. Sometimes, if you really hate a judge and can't get over their terrible ruling against you, the best legal tool in your arsenal is the ballot box: motivate yourself and your friends to go out and vote out the bad seeds.
Okay, but I Really Want to Sue!
Originally rooted in common law, the concept of absolute immunity exists to preserve the impartiality of judges and their ability to strike down people with the full force of the law without fearing that they will face consequences for their actions on the bench. After all, a judge should have the confidence to do what is right without fearing that it will affect their personal life.
That said, absolute immunity does not extend protection beyond judicial functions. Certain judicial acts can be so egregious that culpable judges could face some form of criminal or civil liability for their wrongdoings. You may be able to pay a filing fee to bring a civil action against a judge who:
- Acts outside the scope of judicial functions
- Commits misconduct that interferes with their judicial duties
- Otherwise commits an illegal action that harms you or the public at large, or which is subject to a lower standard of “qualified" immunity, as contrasted with absolute immunity
In addition, a prosecutor may be able to seek criminal charges against a judge for breaking the law.
For example, the United States Supreme Court restricted judicial immunity in a civil rights case where a woman, a subordinate court employee, sued a male judge for firing her based on her sex. The judge was found liable for violating the woman's civil rights. The Supreme Court found that the judge's action was an administrative function and not a judicial act, and therefore not protected by absolute immunity. The moral of this case is that if a judge acts outside the scope of their judicial function, you can sue.
Courts have also offered guidance on what actions or omissions give rise to judicial immunity. Generally, it comes down to three factors:
- Whether the judge's decision is one ordinarily made by a judge acting in an official capacity, or whether it's a decision that could have also been by a private person
- Whether the judge's actions are similar to what other judges ordinarily do
- The expectations of the parties, i.e., whether the parties dealt with the judge as a judge or as an ordinary person
For example, in 1997, a judge in West Virginia was so upset with a misbehaving defendant that he stepped down from the bench and bit him on the nose. After being charged criminally, the judge was sentenced to jail and removed from his position permanently. Accordingly, even if you opt not to sue your judge in civil court for giving you an unsolicited rhinoplasty, the government can still prosecute a judge for violating criminal law.
Judicial Conduct or Disability Complaint Against a Federal Judge
It's worth noting that the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 allows you to complain against a federal judge who has committed misconduct or who suffers from a physical or mental condition that impairs their judicial duties.
A federal judicial complaint can address bad behavior, including:
- Bribery and nepotism
- Political corruption
- Sexual harassment
- Hostility to employees
- Violation of the Federal Code of Judicial Conduct
You can file a misconduct complaint with the clerk's office in federal court, but it won't be heard the same way as other cases. Instead, the clerk of the court in each of the thirteen federal circuits will send it to the respective judicial council of that circuit, and the chief judge or the next highest-ranking officer there will review it. A judicial council hearing this form of complaint can order sanctions including fines, suspensions, and removals against offending judges.
When Can You Sue a Judge?
Sometimes a judge isn't working as a judge. Say you are driving along in your car and a driver, who happens to be a judge, sideswipes you, leaving you with a sore neck and a major dent in the side of your car. The judge wasn't performing a judicial function at the time they hit you, so they would not be immune from your personal injury and property damage lawsuit. You could sue them in tort.
After service of process by whatever method is established by state law, such as certified mail, you would be able to pursue your case in court. For this type of case, you would probably file your complaint in small claims court, given the relatively small amount of money involved. If you won either by default judgment or after a trial, the judge (you don't get a jury trial in a small claims case) would be subject to the same collection methods, such as garnishment, as any other person.
Hiring an Attorney To Help You Decide
As this article has demonstrated, suing a sitting judge is no easy feat. Figuring out whether judicial immunity applies to your circumstances can be even more difficult.
If you're planning to take on a judge, the biggest mistake you can make is to go pro se, that is, to try and represent yourself without hiring an attorney. You should seek the legal advice of an experienced civil rights attorney who can provide you with certainty on whether a judge can be sued, and whether a recovery is possible. It's worth the attorney's fees. Civil rights attorneys can work on both contingency and hourly arrangements, so make sure to inquire about billing before signing the retainer agreement.