Appeals Court Brings Down Gavel on Wayward Judge
Perhaps no immunity doctrine is more ironclad than judicial immunity. After all, the same people who created and apply judicial immunity—judges—benefit from it. IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability nevertheless racked up a rare victory against the doctrine in the 4th Circuit this fall, stripping immunity from a judge who personally led a search party through a private home.
In 2020, now-former West Virginia family court judge Louise Goldston was presiding over a property dispute between Matt Gibson and his ex-wife. Rather than deciding the issues in her courtroom, Goldston halted proceedings and ordered the parties to reconvene at Matt’s home in Raleigh County, West Virginia. There, Matt refused entry, but Goldston forced her way in under threat of arrest. Goldston then led a search party comprising Matt’s ex, the ex’s lawyer, and a bailiff, looking for small items like pictures and DVDs. While sitting shoeless in Matt’s armchair, Goldston instructed the party on how to search for various items and approved their seizure, including those belonging to Matt’s children and girlfriend.
Although Goldston forbade Matt from recording the incident, the bailiff took video of the search without her knowledge. When she found out, she chastised him. And when the public found out, it chastised Goldston. As the result of several ethics complaints, Goldston was eventually censured and fined by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. (Goldston later retired amid a push in the West Virginia Legislature to impeach her.) But for Matt, the harm had been done.
So Matt sued Goldston to hold her accountable for violating his Fourth Amendment rights—and she claimed judicial immunity. Under that court-created doctrine, judges are absolutely immune from liability for all actions taken within their “judicial capacity.” Courts define that capacity broadly, covering even corrupt, illegal, and intentional acts. Compared to qualified immunity, judicial immunity is a harder nut—but with the right tools, it can be cracked.
In the 4th Circuit, IJ argued that Goldston was not entitled to judicial immunity because she was not acting as a judge when she searched Matt’s home. While judges can order the search of a home, executing a search is a power reserved for the executive branch of government. Thus, when Goldston shed her judicial robe (and shoes) to search, she shed her judicial immunity as well. The 4th Circuit agreed in a unanimous decision, finding that Goldston stepped outside her judicial role when she personally participated in the search of Matt’s home. “And while a greater merger of judicial and executive functions might be more efficient,” the appeals court explained, “that very efficiency would facilitate abuses of power.”
As fundamental as the court’s holding—that judges are not immune from suit when acting in an executive rather than judicial role—may seem, it is just as rare. Indeed, IJ’s victory over judicial immunity in Matt’s case marks just the fifth time in 50 years that a federal appeals court has denied a judge immunity for exercising executive power. We will keep up this momentum as we fight for government accountability in nearly 20 other cases nationwide.
Patrick Jaicomo is an IJ senior attorney and co-leader of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability.
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