Matthew Prensky
Matthew Prensky · June 3, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) criticizes the actions of Ozark, Alabama Municipal Judge Nicholas Bull for his attempt to throw a man in jail for simply offending a police officer. IJ is committed to ensuring that judges are held accountable for such flagrant constitutional violations.  

“Judges are supposed to uphold and defend the Constitution, not violate and ignore it,” said IJ attorney Tori Clark. “Judge Bull’s actions violated basic notions of free speech and due process—and they are far outside the realm of judicial functions.” 

Reginald Burks, a father and aircraft mechanic, was pulled over in December for going 28 MPH in a 25 MPH zone while taking his kids to school. The officer’s radar gun was broken, so he allegedly used his cruise control to estimate Burks’ speed. After issuing a speeding ticket, the police officer stepped in front of Burks’ car, blocking him from leaving. Burks asked the officer to move, but he refused. Finally, frustrated by the situation, Burks told the officer to “Get your a** out of the way so I can take my kids to school.” 

Four months later, Burks appeared before Judge Bull to plead guilty and pay the $211 fine. But during the hearing, Judge Bull issued an unusual order. In addition to imposing the fine and court costs, Judge Bull mandated that Burks issue a written apology to the officer who pulled him over. Burks had 30 days to write the apology or face 10 to 30 days in jail. Burks never issued an apology, and after the situation gained national attention, Judge Bull rescinded his order on May 26 at the request of the city prosecutor. 

Judge Bull’s threat to imprison Burks for his speech is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment, and his attempt to punish Burks for a crime with which he was not charged flies in the face of due-process protections. Unfortunately, holding judges accountable for their unconstitutional antics is all but impossible due to a court-made doctrine called judicial immunity. As the name suggests, judicial immunity shields judges from liability for any unconstitutional conduct they engage in while performing their role as a judge. 

IJ has litigated and won cases challenging judicial immunity. Last year, IJ won an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that struck down a West Virginia judge’s attempt to use judicial immunity to shield herself from accountability. In that case, former Raleigh County family-court judge Louise Goldston carried out a warrantless and unconstitutional search of a man’s home while overseeing a divorce proceeding. Both the Fourth Circuit and the West Virginia Supreme Court agreed Goldston’s actions were outside her powers as a judge and therefore not subject to judicial immunity. IJ also successfully argued as amicus in support of denying immunity to a Missouri judge who personally jailed two children in the midst of their parents’ divorce proceedings.