Stump v. Sparkman

PETITIONER:Judge Harold D. Stump
RESPONDENT:Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman
LOCATION:DeKalb County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 76-1750
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 435 US 349 (1978)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1978
DECIDED: Mar 28, 1978

George E. Fruechtenicht – for petitioners
Richard H. Finley – for respondents

Facts of the case

In 1971 Ora Spitler McFarlin presented a petition for sterilization of her mildly mentally disabled daughter, Linda Kay Spitler Sparkman, to Judge Harold D. Stump. Judge Stump concluded sterilization was in Sparkman’s best interests due to her mental capabilities and approved the petition. The operation was performed, although Sparkman was unaware of the true nature of the surgery. Two years later, after Sparkman married, she discovered that the sterilization explained her inability to become pregnant. Sparkman sued Judge Stump for violating her right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that although the approval of the petition by Judge Stump was erroneous, he had jurisdiction to consider the petition and was entitled to judicial immunity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment and concluded that Judge Stump did not have jurisdiction to approve the petition and that he did not have judicial immunity.


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?

Media for Stump v. Sparkman

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 10, 1978 in Stump v. Sparkman

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 28, 1978 in Stump v. Sparkman

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the court in Stump against Sparkman will be announced by Mr. Justice White.

Byron R. White:

Section 1983 of title 42 of the United States code authorizes suits by plaintiffs who claim that state officials have invaded their constitutional rights.

Historically however, English and Unites States judges have not been subject to suits for damages for judicial acts within their jurisdiction.

And our cases have established that Congress did not intend to do away with this immunity when Section 1983 was enacted.

This case which involves the question of judicial immunity under this under this doctrine arose when a mother determined that her minor daughter should be sterilized and presented to a state court judge, a petition for an order authorizing such an operation.

The petition was drawn by the mother’s attorney and was presented to the judge who then approved it over his judicial signature.

There was no notice to the daughter and no guardian ad litem was appointed.

The operation was then performed, the daughter not then being informed of the real nature of this surgery.

When she later married and learned the condition, she brought suit to the United States district court against all those responsible including the judge.

The district court dismissed the case, holding that the judge who presided over a court of general jurisdiction had the authority under state law to approve or disapprove the petition and that whether or not he was in error in approving it, he was immune under established Immunity law.

The Court of Appeals reversed and re-granted the petition for certiorari filed by the judge.

Contrary to the court of appeals, we agree with the district court that the petition presented to the judge was within the jurisdiction under the applicable state law and that he is not liable for damages under section 1983, even if he was mistaken in his construction of the state law, his act of approving the petition.

The respondent also claims that no immunity should attach here because the act of signing the authorization order was not a judicial act and that it was performed so informally and was so lacking in procedural safeguards that the approval of ex parte orders with respect to minors at the behest of their natural guardians is not unusual and here the mother came to the judge as a judge and he purported to act as one, when he approved the petition and signed the authorization order as he had the jurisdiction to do under state law, judgment of the Court of Appeals accordingly reversed.

Dissents will be announced but I should say that Mr. Justice Brennan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Potter Stewart:

I have filed a dissenting opinion in this case which Mr. Justice Marshall and Mr. Justice Powell have joined.

It is established Federal law that judges of general jurisdiction are absolutely immune from monetary liability, for judicial acts even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction.

But the scope of judicial immunity is limited to liability for judicial acts and I think that what Judge Stump did on July 9, 1971 approving an operation permanently sterilizing this unknowing young woman was beyond the pale of anything that could sensibly be called a judicial act.

The court finds two reasons for holding the judge Stump’s approval of the sterilization petition was a judicial act.

First, the court says, it was a function normally performed by a judge.

Second, the court says the act was performed in Judge Stump’s judicial capacity.

With all respect, I think that the first of these grounds is factually untrue and that the second is legally unsound.

In Indiana as elsewhere in our country, a parent is authorized to arrange for in consent to medical and surgical treatment of her minor child.

And when a parent decides to call a physician to care for her sick child or arranges to have a surgeon remove her child’s tonsils she does not normally or otherwise need to seek the approval of a judge.

On the other hand, Indiana did in 1971, have statutory procedures for the sterilization of certain people who were confined in institutions but these statutes provided for administrative proceedings before a board established by the superintendent of each public hospital.

In sum, what judge Stump did on July 9, 1971 was in no way an act normally performed by a judge.

Indeed there is no reason to believe that such an act has ever been performed by any other Indiana judge either before or since.

When the court says that judge Stump was acting in his judicial capacity in approving Mrs. McFarlin’s petition, it is not clear to me whether the court means that Mrs. McFarlin submitted the petition to him only because he was a judge or that in approving it, he said he was acting as judge.

But however, the court’s test is to be understood, it is I think the demonstrably unsound.

It can safely be assumed that Mrs. McFarlin came to judge stump with her petition because he was a county circuit court judge.

But false illusions as to a judge’s power can hardly convert a judge’s response to those illusions into a judicial act.

Potter Stewart:

A judges approval of a mother’s petition to lock her daughter in the attic would hardly be a judicial act simply because the mother had submitted her petition to the judge in his official capacity.

If on the other hand, the court’s test depends upon the fact that judge Stump said he was acting in his judicial capacity is equally invalid.

It is true that judge stump affixed his signature to the approval of the petition as “Judge DeKalb Circuit Court” but the conduct of a judge surely does not become a judicial act merely on his own say so.

A judge is not free like a lose cannon to inflict indiscriminate damage whenever he announces that he is acting in his judicial capacity.

My conclusion that what judge Stump did was not a judicial act is not based upon the fact that he acted within formality or that he may not have been in his judge’s robes, or in the courtroom itself.

It seems to me, rather, that the concept of what is a judicial act must take its content from a consideration of the factors that support immunity from liability for the performance of such an act.

Those factors were accurately summarized by the Court in an opinion by Chief Justice Warren more than ten years ago in a case called Pierson v. Ray, reported in volume 386 of the Unites States reports.

And I quote, “It is for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences.

It is a judge’s duty to decide all cases within his jurisdiction that are brought before him, including controversial cases that arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants.

His errors maybe corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption.

Imposing such a burden on judges would contribute not to principled and fearless decision-making but to intimidation.

“Not one of the considerations thus summarized in the Pierson opinion was present here.

There was no case, controversial or otherwise.

There were no litigants.

There was and there could be no appeal.

And it was not even the pretext of principled decision making.

The total absence of any of these normal attributes of a judicial proceeding convinces me that the conduct complained of in this case was not a judicial act.

The petitioners’ brief speaks of an aura of deism which surrounds the bench essential to the maintenance of respect for the judicial institution.

If aura there be, it is hardly protected by exonerating from liability such lawless conduct as took place here.

And if intimidation would serve to deter its recurrence, that would surely be in the public interest.

It is for these reasons discussed in more detail in a written dissenting opinion filed today that Mr. Justice Marshall, Mr. Justice Powell and I disagree with the opinion and judgment of the court and Mr. Justice Powell has also filed a dissenting opinion in further amplification of his views.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice White, thank you Mr. Justice Stewart.