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FORRESTER v. WHITE

decided: January 12, 1988.

FORRESTER
v.
WHITE



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Stevens, and Scalia, JJ., joined, and in all but Part II of which Blackmun, J., joined.

Author: O'connor

[ 484 U.S. Page 220]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide whether a state-court judge has absolute immunity from a suit for damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 for his decision to dismiss a subordinate court employee. The employee, who had been a probation officer, alleged that she was demoted and discharged on account of

[ 484 U.S. Page 221]

     her sex, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We conclude that the judge's decisions were not judicial acts for which he should be held absolutely immune.

I

Respondent Howard Lee White served as Circuit Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of the State of Illinois and Presiding Judge of the Circuit Court in Jersey County. Under Illinois law, Judge White had the authority to hire adult probation officers, who were removable in his discretion. Ill. Rev. Stat., ch. 38, P204-1 (1979). In addition, as designee of the Chief Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, Judge White had the authority to appoint juvenile probation officers to serve at his pleasure. Ill. Rev. Stat., ch. 37, P706-5 (1979).

In April 1977, Judge White hired petitioner Cynthia A. Forrester as an adult and juvenile probation officer. Forrester prepared presentence reports for Judge White in adult offender cases, and recommendations for disposition and placement in juvenile cases. She also supervised persons on probation and recommended revocation when necessary. In July 1979, Judge White appointed Forrester as Project Supervisor of the Jersey County Juvenile Court Intake and Referral Services Project, a position that carried increased supervisory responsibilities. Judge White demoted Forrester to a nonsupervisory position in the summer of 1980. He discharged her on October 1, 1980.

Forrester filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in July 1982. She alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq., and § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Rev. Stat. § 1979, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1983. A jury found that Judge White had discriminated against Forrester on account of her sex, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The jury awarded her $81,818.80 in

[ 484 U.S. Page 222]

     compensatory damages under § 1983. Forrester's other claims were dismissed in the course of the lawsuit.

After Judge White's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict was denied, he moved for a new trial. The District Court granted this motion, holding that the jury verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Judge White then moved for summary judgment on the ground that he was entitled to "judicial immunity" from a civil damages suit. This motion, too, was granted. Forrester appealed.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The majority reasoned that judges are immune for activities implicating the substance of their decisions in the cases before them, although they are not shielded "from the trials of life generally." 792 F.2d 647, 652 (1986). Some members of a judge's staff aid in the performance of adjudicative functions, and the threat of suits by such persons could make a judge reluctant to replace them even after losing confidence in their work. This could distort the judge's decisionmaking and thereby indirectly affect the rights of litigants. Here, Forrester performed functions that were "inextricably tied to discretionary decisions that have consistently been considered judicial acts." Id., at 657. Unless Judge White felt free to replace Forrester, the majority thought, the quality of his own decisions might decline. The Court of Appeals therefore held that Judge White was absolutely immune from Forrester's civil damages suit. In view of this holding, the court found it unnecessary to decide whether the District Court had erred in granting Judge White's motion for a new trial.

In dissent, Judge Posner argued that judicial immunity should protect only adjudicative functions, and that employment decisions are administrative functions for which judges should not be given absolute immunity.

In Goodwin v. Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Mo., 729 F.2d 541, 549, cert. denied, 469 ...


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