Dennis v. Sparks

LOCATION: U.S. Department of State

DOCKET NO.: 79-1186
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 449 US 24 (1980)
ARGUED: Oct 08, 1980
DECIDED: Nov 17, 1980

Finley L. Edmonds - on behalf of the Petitioner
Garland F. Smith - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Dennis v. Sparks

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 08, 1980 in Dennis v. Sparks

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Dennis v. Sparks and Lynd.

Mr. Edmonds, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Finley L. Edmonds:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The points that petitioner feels are presented to the Court on this petition for certiorari have to do with the question of whether a state court judge acting within the scope of his jurisdiction is a person as that term or word is used in Section 1983.

Petitioner submits that the resolution of that question depends in great part upon the scope of judicial immunity as that concept is applied by this Court.

William H. Rehnquist:

Isn't immunity an affirmative defense?

Finley L. Edmonds:

Judicial immunity, Your Honor, Petitioner submits, is more than an affirmative defense.

Warren E. Burger:

You mean it has a little bit of jurisdiction on it?

Finley L. Edmonds:

Your Honor, in examining the development of judicial immunity, it seems that an argument can be made that it's in the rationale behind judicial immunity, the public interest to be served by judicial immunity.

That to put it in terms that is judicial immunity an affirmative defense raises the question what if the judge who sued doesn't raise the offense?

Warren E. Burger:

Well, are you suggesting that it's comparable to, analogous to the posture of a United States Senator under the Speech or Debate Clause, that he may not be questioned in any other place?

Finley L. Edmonds:

I'm saying, yes, that it's analogous to legislative immunity, congressional immunity under the Speech or Debate Clause if the judge, if the purpose for questioning the judge or for suing the judge is because of his act or conduct while a judge, acting within his jurisdiction.

Warren E. Burger:

But we don't have a speech or debate clause typed for judges, do we?

Finley L. Edmonds:

No, Your Honor.

Warren E. Burger:

That's a judicially constructive concept.

Finley L. Edmonds:

It's a common law of construction; yes, Your Honor.

And if the scope of judicial immunity, just going back to Bradley v. Fisher and throw out the cases that have been cited by this Court: Pierson, Embler, more recently in the Consumer Union case.

The analysis of legislative immunity, the analysis of judicial immunity, that if the public interest or rationale behind this immunity is to free the judge from the intimidation, harassment, et cetera, as the Court has many times discussed in these cases.

If that is the rationale, then rhetorically does not the rationale require that judicial immunity apply regardless of whether the judge raises it as a defense?

So, in answer to your question, Judge Rehnquist, I would say that it's more than an affirmative defense, as would be a qualified immunity whereon a state officer or a federal officer is asserting that he is immune because of his good faith carrying out of discretionary functions.

William H. Rehnquist:

So what if the judge is served with a complaint in an action such as this and simply lets the time for answer go by and a default judgment is taken against him?

Would you say that that judgment is no good?

Finley L. Edmonds:

Or he answers... yes.

Byron R. White:

Or he answers and litigates the case without ever raising the claim that judgment is against him.

Is that judgment good?

Finley L. Edmonds:

Petitioner's position is that judicial immunity, that the public interest behind judicial immunity is that it's not in the judge's discretion to raise the question of judicial immunity.

It's the adjudicating court's function to apply, it's a matter of jurisdiction.

William H. Rehnquist:

So, even if he said I want to answer this on the merits and clear my name of these allegations in the complaint he would not be permitted to do so under your theory?

Finley L. Edmonds:

Your Honor, my response to that is does that not raise the question, or beg the issue, about the underlying rationale for the immunity?

Is it up to the judge to decide whether he wants to respond or not, or is it in the public interest that he not respond?