Nahmod Law

The Broad Scope of Judicial Immunity: An Example from the Eighth Circuit

Suppose a state court judge allows a municipal court clerk to issue arrest warrants and to set bonds using the judge’s signature stamp, as well as to set a schedule requiring cash-only bonds regardless of an arrestee’s ability to pay. Suppose further that doing so is unconstitutional because these acts of the clerk are not performed by a neutral and detached magistrate. Can the judge be held liable for damages under § 1983? The Eighth Circuit answered in the negative in Hamilton v. City of Hayti, 948 F.3d 921 (8th Cir. 2020).

It determined that judicial immunity from damages liability applied to the state court judge’s delegation of authority to the clerk to issue an arrest warrant using the judge’s signature stamp against the plaintiff even though this “likely [sic]” made the warrant invalid because it was not issued by a detached and neutral magistrate who made a probable cause finding. The Eighth Circuit reasoned that judges in Missouri have original jurisdiction to issue arrest warrants and thus the judge here did not act in the clear absence of all jurisdiction with respect to this challenged conduct.

Judicial immunity also applied to the plaintiff’s claim that the arrest warrant required him to post a cash-only bond in an amount established by the judge’s unconstitutional bond schedule: this too was a judicial act within the judge’s jurisdiction.

Finally, the Eighth Circuit went on to apply judicial immunity to the municipal clerk as well under a functional approach because, even though the judge did not expressly direct the clerk to issue the arrest warrant against the plaintiff, the judge had nevertheless authorized the clerk to issue and set warrants with bond conditions. This was a judicial function protected by (quasi) judicial immunity.


It has long been § 1983 black letter law that judges lose their absolute immunity from damages liability only where (1) they have acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction, and not just in excess of jurisdiction, or (2) where their challenged acts are not judicial in nature. See generally, Chapter 7 in Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2020)(West/Westlaw).

In Hamilton, the Eighth Circuit had little difficulty in finding that the state court judge did not act in the clear absence of all jurisdiction in light of the original jurisdiction of Missouri judges to issue arrest warrants and to require arrestees to post cash-only bonds. Only if, say, Missouri law had expressly and unambiguously stated that state court judges did not have subject matter jurisdiction to engage in such conduct could it have plausibly been argued that the state court judge here acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Hamilton is thus far different from a case in which a state civil court judge, for example, “convicts” a § 1983 plaintiff and has him put in jail!

Moreover, these were clearly judicial acts: Missouri judges of general jurisdiction engaged in issuing arrest warrants and requiring arrestees to post cash-only bonds, and the parties expected such conduct from judges. Again, this is far different from a case in which, for example, a state court judge comes off the bench during a trial and punches a litigant in the face!

Hamilton is yet another example (of so many) in which state court judges who acted in a clearly unconstitutional manner and caused harm to § 1983 plaintiffs still escape damages liability. Such judicial immunity, like legislative and prosecutorial immunity, is designed to protect decision making processes important to a democracy and the rule of law, even at the cost of constitutional harms to § 1983 plaintiffs. That is, it protects absolute immune defendants not only against the costs of liability but also, more significantly, against the costs of even defending. And judicial immunity in particular is a virtually insurmountable burden for § 1983 plaintiffs.

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Written by snahmod

June 21, 2021 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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