RICHMOND, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) teamed up with a West Virginia man whose rights were violated by a Raleigh County family court judge. IJ and Matthew Gibson are urging the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court’s ruling that Judge Louise Goldston was not entitled to judicial immunity after she abruptly halted a court hearing, ordered everyone present to go to Matthew’s house, searched through his belongings without a warrant, and threatened to arrest him when he began recording the encounter.
Judicial immunity is a judge-made doctrine that shields judges from being held civilly liable when they violate someone’s rights while acting in their judicial capacity.
“Judicial immunity should only apply when judges are actually acting as judges. Leading a search party is not acting like a judge,” said IJ Attorney Tori Clark. “The lower court was completely correct when it denied Judge Goldston’s claim that she was entitled to judicial immunity, and we urge the Appeals Court to uphold that ruling.”
The incident occurred in March 2020 during a divorce proceeding between Matthew and his ex-wife, at which Matthew had no legal representation. Judge Goldston abruptly ended the hearing, asked Matthew for his address, and ordered Matthew, his ex-wife, her attorney, and several law enforcement officers to go to Matthew’s home. When they arrived at the home, Judge Goldston led a search party through Matthew’s home, including his basement and gun safe. Matthew told the judge she could not enter his home without a warrant, to which she responded, “Oh yeah, I will.”
As the search party progressed, Matthew’s ex-wife claimed several items in the home belonged to her. Each time she did so, Judge Goldston ordered her to take them, even though some of them actually belonged to Matthew or his kids.
While Matthew’s ex-wife grabbed the possessions, Judge Goldston made herself at home, walking barefoot through the house and lounging in Matthew’s rocking chair. Matthew and his girlfriend attempted to record the encounter, but Judge Goldston threatened him with arrest and ordered one of the bailiffs to seize his phone.
“It was incredibly frustrating to have my rights and my privacy violated that day,” Matthew said. “This lawsuit is about standing up for my rights and ensuring other people have a way to get justice when their rights are violated.”
Judge Goldston’s actions were so far out of bounds that they received widespread condemnation. She was charged with multiple ethics violations, censured, and fined. The West Virginia High Court even condemned her actions as unbecoming of a judge.
“When a judge acts like a police officer and leads a search party, that threatens the neutrality of the judicial process and chips away at a bedrock American principle: the separation of powers,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Judges don’t get to act like police simply because they think they can do a better job.”
When Matthew sued Judge Goldston for violating his constitutional rights, she asserted that she was entitled to judicial immunity and that Matthew’s claims should thus be thrown out. However, the federal district court rejected her claim because her actions were clearly not judicial. Judge Goldston appealed the trial court’s decision to the Fourth Circuit, claiming that she should be entitled to immunity and that Matthew’s case should be thrown out. Now, Matthew has teamed up with IJ to ensure the lower court’s decision remains in place and that Judge Goldston isn’t above the law simply because she wears a robe.
As part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ has been standing up against various forms of immunities that prevent Americans from receiving justice when their rights are violated by government officials. Those cases include one where police officers claimed qualified immunity after arresting an Ohio man for making a parody Facebook page, another where a road-raging police officer claimed qualified immunity after he blocked a man in his driveway and held him at gunpoint for passing the officer on the road, and yet another one where a mayor, a chief of police, and a special investigator engineered a scheme to throw a 72-year-old council woman in jail for speaking out against their ally, a city manager. These doctrines are inconsistent with America’s founding principle that where there is a right, there must be a remedy.