FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 10/30/2023
CONTACT: Phillip Suderman, [email protected], (850) 376-4110
ARLINGTON, VA.—Today, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of Matthew Gibson in a suit against former family court judge Louise Goldston. Goldston personally led a warrantless search of Matthew’s house during a divorce proceeding Goldston oversaw, an act—that both the Fourth Circuit and West Virginia Supreme Court have now agreed—was well outside her powers as a judge. Matthew was represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national non-profit law firm that protects constitutional rights.
“Today is a victory not just for Matthew but for everyone who stands before a judge in a court of law and expects a fair hearing,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “The separation of powers exists for a reason, so that no one person can be judge, jury, and executioner. Checks and balances must be maintained to ensure a fair and free society, and judges who act beyond their constitutional mandate should not expect the protection of immunity.”
“This has been a hard-fought battle, and I’m relieved to have the court agree these violations of my rights cannot stand,” added Matthew Gibson. “But I’m particularly pleased to know that the court’s ruling will not only safeguard my rights, but the rights of countless others who might otherwise suffer abuse at the hands of overstepping judges who think their robes hide them from the Constitution they are sworn to uphold.”
Along with qualified immunity, judicial immunity is one of many court-created doctrines that shield government workers from constitutional accountability. But unlike qualified immunity, judicial immunity is absolute—meaning when judges do things in their judicial capacity, they simply cannot be sued. Still, judges are not entitled to do whatever they want, and then demand special treatment just because they happen to wear a robe at work. They cannot, for instance, act like police and search homes; if they do, they can’t claim judicial immunity.
But that’s exactly what happened in Raleigh County, West Virginia. During divorce proceedings between Matthew and his ex-wife, Raleigh County family-court judge Louise Goldston personally forced her way into Matthew’s home under threats of arrest to search for items that were in dispute. Accompanied by Matthew’s ex-wife, her attorney, and a bailiff (among others), Goldston walked barefoot through the house, ordering Matthew’s ex-wife to seize DVDs, yearbooks, and pictures off the wall. Some of the items didn’t even belong to Matthew’s ex-wife. And when Matthew tried to record the encounter, the judge threatened him with arrest.
When Matthew sued the judge for these egregious violations of constitutional rights, Goldston argued that she could not be sued even if she had violated the Constitution by invoking judicial immunity.
Goldston was ultimately censured and fined, and roundly condemned, by the West Virginia high court for violating the state’s code of judicial conduct. She ended up retiring from her position amid a legislative push to impeach her for violating the rights of West Virginians. The resolution to impeach Goldston specifically mentioned the judge leading a warrantless search of Matthew’s home. Despite her retirement, Matthew and IJ continued moving forward with their lawsuit against Goldston wanting to ensure that this egregious violation wouldn’t happen again, and that the doctrine of judicial immunity would not expand.
This case is a part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which fights to ensure that qualified, judicial, and prosecutorial immunities, among others, do not prevent individuals from vindicating their rights in court. If citizens must follow the law, government officials must follow the Constitution.
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To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may contact Phillip Suderman, IJ’s Communications Project Manager, at [email protected] (850) 376-4110. More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/west-virginia-judicial-field-trip/