Van de Kamp v. Goldstein

PETITIONER:John Van de Kamp, et al.
RESPONDENT:Thomas Lee Goldstein
LOCATION: Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office

DOCKET NO.: 07-854
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 555 US (2009)
GRANTED: Apr 14, 2008
ARGUED: Nov 05, 2008
DECIDED: Jan 26, 2009

E. Joshua Rosenkranz – argued the cause for the respondent
Michael R. Dreeben – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Timothy T. Coates – argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Thomas Lee Goldstein was released on habeas corpus from a California prison in 2004 after serving twenty-four years of a murder sentence. Goldstein then brought suit against the prosecutor and chief deputy from his trial alleging that he had been wrongly convicted. Goldstein argued that he had been prejudiced by the testimony of a jailhouse informant claiming to have heard Goldstein confess to the murder. The informant had stated that he had never, either before or during the trial, received benefits for cooperating with the government; in fact, the informant had worked with the government in the past and was getting reduced sentences in exchange for his testimony. Goldstein’s claim alleged that the prosecutor and deputy had failed to fulfill their obligation to ensure that information regarding jailhouse informants was adequately shared among prosecutors. In response, the prosecutors argued that their actions during the trial were immune from suit.

The district court held that the actions were administrative rather than prosecutorial and were therefore not subject to immunity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed, finding that the prosecutor had failed to show the necessary close association with the judicial phase of the trial in order to invoke immunity.


In a suit brought by a plaintiff alleging that he was wrongfully convicted of murder, are federal prosecutors entitled to absolute immunity against charges that they failed to satisfactorily share information regarding the testimony of a jailhouse informant during the course of the trial?

Media for Van de Kamp v. Goldstein

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 05, 2008 in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 26, 2009 in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 07-854, Van de Kamp versus Goldstein.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Thomas Goldstein was convicted of murdering at state court, but after many years of imprisonment, he was released.

When federal court’s found that his trial was infected with an important prosecutorial error, namely, the prosecution failed to turn over to the defense, information would have shown that an informant who was testifying was not reliable.

After he was released, Goldstein sued the prosecution seeking damages under federal civil rights laws.

But he didn’t sue the prosecutor’s who prosecuted him with the trial, rather he sued their supervisors.

And this was probably for a good reason, the reason he — he probably didn’t sue the trial prosecutors is that he couldn’t because prosecutors enjoy an absolute immunity in such suits, whether they make mistakes or not.

The reason for that immunity, which is well established in the law, was explained by Judge Learned Hand many years ago.

He said it has been thought in the end better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation.

Now, the question before us here in this case is whether the same analysis and same conclusion, namely, absolute immunity also applies to the prosecutors who administer the office as well as to those who tried the case.

We conclude that the same analysis and conclusion do apply in the circumstances present here.

Now, what are those?

Well, Goldstein’s claim that the prosecution, his claim is that the prosecution’s administrative failures here consisted of inadequate supervising, inadequate training and a failure to set up a proper information system that would have kept track of the government informants.

Now, those three fault, all are faults that relate directly to the work and performance of prosecutor’s at individual trials.

In addition, a specific prosecutorial error at Goldstein’s individual trial was an essential element of Goldstein’s claim.

He couldn’t win without showing that.

Now, given these circumstances, we find that all of the considerations that support absolute immunity in the context of a trial applied to this case in equal force.

And we consequently hold that the supervising prosecutors here enjoy absolute immunity.

We explain all these further in our opinion if you’d like more explanation.

We reverse a Ninth Circuit determination to the contrary.

We remand the case.

The decision is unanimous.