Facts of the Case
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.
Does a district court judge have the power to entertain and act upon the petition for sterilization, which makes him immune from damages liability even if his approval of the petition was in error?
Yes. Justice Byron R. White delivered the opinion of the 5-3 majority. The Court held that the law vested the district court judge with the power to entertain and act upon the petition for sterilization, and he is therefore immune from damages liability even if his approval of the petition was in error. The Court held that a judge could only be deprived of immunity when he acted in clear absence of jurisdiction. In this case, the court had general jurisdiction over the petition for sterilization, therefore, Judge Stump’s approval was a judicial act, and he was immunized from liability.Justice Potter Stewart wrote a dissent, in which he argued that the scope of judicial immunity was a limited liability for judicial acts. Because approval of a petition for sterilization is not a function normally performed by a judge, it is not a judicial act. In a separate dissent, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. argued that a judicial officer acted in a manner that precluded all resort to appellate or other judicial remedies and that the judge should not be entitled to immunity.Justice William J. Brennan Jr. did not participate in the discussion or decision of the case.
- Citation: 435 US 349 (1978)
- Argued: Jan 10, 1978
- Decided Mar 28, 1978