Is a Court Officer Entitled to Absolute Quasi-Judicial Immunity — or Only Qualified Immunity — When Using Excessive Force to Remove a Person from the Courtroom pursuant to a Judge’s Order? Circuit Split

Ingram v. Township of Deptford, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34031 (D.N.J. Mar. 13, 2012):

A Circuit split exists with respect to whether a court officer is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity when the officer allegedly uses excessive force to remove a person from a courtroom pursuant to a judge's order. The Third Circuit has not addressed this issue. 1 Prior to addressing the competing Circuit opinions, it is first necessary to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Mireles v. Wako, 502 U.S. 9 (1991), which is central to each Circuit's analysis.

In Mireles, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "a judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error . . . or was in excess of his authority." Id. at 12-13. A public defender alleged that a state court judge violated his constitutional rights by ordering police officers to forcibly seize him and use excessive force to bring him into the judge's courtroom. Id. at 10. The public defender had failed to appear for the initial call of the judge's morning calendar. Id. The judge was allegedly "angered by the absence of attorneys from his courtroom" and subsequently ordered the police officers "to forcibly and with excessive force seize and bring plaintiff into his courtroom." Id. The officers then allegedly seized the plaintiff with unnecessary force and removed him backwards from another courtroom where he was waiting to appear, cursed him and called him offensive names. Id. Then, the officers unnecessarily slammed him through the doors and swinging gates into the judge's courtroom. Id.

The Supreme Court held the state court judge was entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Specifically, the Supreme Court emphasized that a "judge's direction to court officers to bring a person who is in the courthouse before him is a function normally performed by a judge . . . in the judge's judicial capacity." Id. at 12. However, the Court noted that the "judge's direction to carry out a judicial order with excessive force is not a function normally performed by a judge." Id. (citations omitted). In reasoning that the judge was nonetheless entitled to judicial immunity, the Supreme Court maintained that the nature and function of the act, not the act itself, controls the judicial immunity analysis. The court also reasoned that the fact that the judge's order was carried out by court officers did not transform the judge's action from judicial to executive in character. Id. at 13. Rather, the court stated a "judge's direction to an executive officer to bring counsel before the court is no more executive in character than a judge's issuance of a warrant for an executive officer to search a home." Id. Therefore, the court held that while the judge exceeded his authority, he was nonetheless entitled to judicial immunity. Importantly, this decision did not address whether the court officers that executed the judge's order were also entitled to quasi-judicial immunity and this issue remains unaddressed by the Supreme Court.

The first circuit to squarely address this issue was the Eighth Circuit in Martin v. Hendren, 127 F.3d 720 (8th Cir. 1997). ***

The majority opinion held that the court officer was entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity. ***

The dissenting opinion took the opposite view and held the officer was not entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity and rather, a qualified immunity analysis was appropriate.***

After Martin was decided, the Seventh Circuit was next to address the issue of the use of excessive force by an officer in removing a litigant from a courtroom. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the dissent in Martin and held that absolute quasi-judicial immunity did not apply. Richman v. Sheahan, 270 F.3d 430 (7th Cir. 2001).***

In analyzing whether the deputies' conduct in this case was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity, the majority opinion rejected the Eight Circuit's reasoning in Martin. Specifically, the majority opined:

We believe that the Eighth Circuit stretches the reasoning in Mireles too far, and confuses the question ... [of] whether the challenged conduct was specifically ordered by the judge with the separate question of whether the conduct was lawful or exceeded the actor's authority.

***

After reviewing the case law at issue, this court is persuaded by the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit majority opinion in Richman and the dissenting opinion in Martin. ***

[W]hen reviewing the Mireles decision, the Supreme Court made a distinction between immunity provided to the judge who issued the removal order and an officer who enforced the order. The Supreme Court's holding in Mireles was limited to the judge who ordered the public defender be brought before the court. ***

In particular, the Supreme Court analogized the situation to a judge issuing a warrant and the subsequent execution of the warrant by reasoning a "judge's direction to an executive officer to bring counsel before the court is no more executive in character than a judge's issuance of a warrant for an executive officer to search a home." Mireles, 502 U.S. at 13. The Supreme Court, in analyzing the situation in Mireles, made a distinction between the judicial function in issuing the removal order and the executive function in enforcing the order.

Finally, the facts of Mireles are distinct from the case at bar and the facts present in Martin and Richman. In Mireles, the majority assumed the judge expressly ordered the officers to bring the public defender to the courtroom using excessive force. In this case, and in Richman and Martin, the judge did not order the officers to use excessive force in removing the litigants from the courtroom.

The court agrees with the dissenting opinion in Martin that the extension of quasi-judicial immunity to courtroom officers who remove a person from court using excessive force is based on a false premise. Specifically, the argument for extending judicial immunity falsely assumes that the judge ordered the officers to carry out the removal with excessive force. Here, there is no evidence that Judge Golden ordered the officer to remove the Plaintiff with excessive force, and to assume that such an authorization is inherent in a judge's removal order defies reason and would condone the exercise of unconstitutional conduct. Instead, the court agrees with the majority opinion in Richman that "an order to take someone into custody carries with it an implicit order not to use unreasonable force." Richman, 270 F.3d at 435.

The court also finds the policy reasons supporting the extension of judicial immunity to the instant matter unpersuasive. While courtroom order is important and providing security to judges, litigants and courtroom personnel is imperative, the dangers present are not unique to the courtroom environment and are present in numerous circumstances faced by law enforcement every day. The Supreme Court has consistently held that qualified immunity is sufficient to protect government officers from unnecessary litigation and preserve the exercise of their official duties. Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224 (1991)(applying qualified immunity to Secret Service agents protecting the president); Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987)(applying qualified immunity to an FBI agent who conducted a warrantless search of a home in pursuit of a suspect in a bank robbery committed earlier that day); Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985)(applying qualified immunity analysis to Attorney General who authorized a warrantless wiretap for purposes of gathering information pertinent to national security). The court sees no reason to shift this well established policy in the courtroom setting.

Further, the court is mindful that the only difference between absolute immunity in this case and qualified immunity is that the former forecloses any right of redress by a victim of unconstitutional conduct while the later allows a court to analyze the specific facts and circumstances of the officer's conduct. The court is persuaded that qualified immunity is the more appropriate vehicle in this circumstance.

In particular, the court agrees with the majority opinion in Richman that the Plaintiff's claim is not challenging the validity of the judge's order of removal and cannot be seen as a collateral attack on the judge's decision making. Nor does Plaintiff challenge the deputy's authority to remove her pursuant to the judge's order. Rather, Sergeant Taylor is being called upon to answer for his own wrongdoing, specifically the manner in which he enforced Judge Golden's order. This implicates an executive and not a judicial function, and therefore, qualified immunity is appropriate.

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