Bringing Down the Gavel on Judicial Immunity
Judges take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, not violate and ignore it. Yet in Raleigh County, West Virginia, a family court judge is arguing that she shouldn’t be held accountable for unconstitutionally forcing her way into Matt Gibson’s home and searching it. Now Matt has joined with IJ in a case that represents the latest frontier in IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability.
The Project on Immunity and Accountability, which began in 2020, is devoted to a simple idea: If we the people must follow the law, our government must follow the Constitution. Unfortunately, too often, government officials who violate the Constitution are shielded from liability by a variety of judge-made legal doctrines. These include “qualified immunity,” the once-obscure doctrine that IJ’s litigation and advocacy—along with advocacy by our friends at the Cato Institute—have vaulted to national attention. They also include various forms of “absolute immunity,” such as the “prosecutorial immunity” that IJ is challenging in its case against former Midland, Texas, prosecutor Ralph Petty, who prosecuted IJ client Erma Wilson while at the same time moonlighting as a judicial clerk for the judge deciding Erma’s case.
It will come as no surprise that judges have also given themselves absolute immunity for their judicial conduct. Crucially, though, judges get this special protection only when they are acting as judges. Preserving this line between judicial and non-judicial conduct is thus vital to protecting our constitutional separation of powers and to ensuring that judges who abuse their position of authority by stepping outside their proper role are held to account.
Matt experienced this abuse firsthand in March 2020, when, during an in-court dispute between Matt and his ex-wife, Judge Louise Goldston abruptly halted proceedings and demanded that the parties meet at Matt’s home immediately. When Judge Goldston arrived, she ordered Matt to stop recording the encounter and then led a search party—including Matt’s ex-wife and the ex-wife’s attorney—through Matt’s home. The search party ultimately removed several items from the home without Matt’s permission, including items that belonged to Matt’s children and girlfriend.
Because of her actions, Judge Goldston was disciplined for multiple ethics violations and ultimately censured and fined. But when Matt later sued Judge Goldston in federal court for violations of his constitutional rights, she claimed that “judicial immunity” shielded her from liability for her unconstitutional conduct. Although the trial court rejected her argument, she has now appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
With IJ’s help, Matt intends to make sure that the Fourth Circuit affirms the trial court’s ruling that allows victims of judicial misconduct to turn to federal courts when their rights are violated. Because under the Constitution, no government official—whether they wear a badge or a robe—is above the law.
Tori Clark is an IJ attorney.
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