Rosa Parks bravely took steps to fight injustice during her lifetime. Now, in death, the civil-rights icon from Alabama might be able to help shine light on a legal doctrine that contributes greatly to corruption in our courtrooms.
A lawyer in Detroit, Michigan, has sued a probate judge and two court-appointed attorneys, claiming they conspired to loot the Rosa Parks estate. The lawsuit almost certainly will run afoul of a legal concept called judicial immunity, which is designed to protect judges from almost all lawsuits. If a judge acts in his "judicial capacity," he can almost never be held accountable for wrongful acts, no matter how reprehensible they might be.
Judicial immunity hits close to home because it was a major issue in the Alabama hunting-club lawsuits, which we have covered extensively. In those cases, certain judges and lawyers used their membership in a Lowndes County hunting club to fix divorce cases in Jefferson County. A federal judge dismissed charges against his state-court brethren, stating they were free to engage in a criminal conspiracy as long their roles involved corrupt actions from the bench.
Believe or not, the federal judge actually ruled correctly under current law. Do citizens have any idea what judicial immunity means--that it allows a public official to behave like a common criminal, as long as he wears a robe and answers to the term "Your Honor"?
In theory, judicial immunity is supposed to give judges the freedom to act fearlessly, to make legally correct decisions that might be unpopular with the public. In reality, the concept is a license for judges to cheat--and even steal--and quite a few of them take advantage of it.
The public, for the most part, is blissfully unaware of the corruption that judicial immunity engenders. That needs to change. Congress has the power to hold judges accountable, but there has been no groundswell of support for such a cause. That, too, needs to change.
Perhaps a high-profile case involving the estate of an exalted figure in American history will prompt action, the kind that will strike terror in the hearts of judges from coast to coast.
What are the key issues in the Parks lawsuit? From reporter David Ashenfelter in the Detroit Free Press:
Lawyer Stephen G. Cohen said in court papers that Judge Freddie Burton Jr. conspired with probate lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., enabling the pair to rack up more than $507,000 in mostly unnecessary legal fees that drained Parks' estate of its cash, leaving it $88,000 in debt
Cohen also said Burton, through secret hearings and improper rulings, allowed the pair to concoct a bogus breach of confidentiality dispute.
Cohen said the judge used the dispute to strip Elaine Steele and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute that she created with Parks of their share of Parks' property, said to be worth up to $8 million.
"Chase and Jefferson, together with Judge Burton, illegally, maliciously and wrongfully conspired … for the illegal purpose of raiding Mrs. Parks' estate of its value," Cohen said in a 38-page probate petition.
Those are serious charges, and the full complaint can be read here. But it's going to be almost impossible to hold the judge civilly liable because of judicial immunity. If the U.S. Department of Justice were to get interested, criminal charges could be brought against the judge and lawyers. But the chances of that happening are slim.
Criminal charges, even if pursued, might only punish the wrongdoers but do nothing to get justice for Rosa Parks' heirs.
How grotesque can judicial immunity be in the real world? In one of the Alabama hunting-club cases, Plaintiff Joseph W. Blackburn (a professor of tax law at Samford University) alleged that Judge John C. Calhoun was part of a conspiracy under the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). But U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield found that Calhoun was immune, no matter how criminal his actions might have been. From page 23 of the ruling: (The full ruling can be read at the end of this post.)
This is where Calhoun gets off Blackburn's liability train. Plaintiff at most has alleged that he acted with corrupt (bribed) motives when he ruled against him and his proposed co-plaintiffs. True, he has alleged that this defendant has done things off the bench like pal around with corrupt lawyers, soak up illicit "hunting club" . . . benefits--all to help foster an illegal enterprise.
But those allegations are all "quid-pro-quo-tied" to Calhoun's rulings. Meanwhile, it is settled that damage claims premised upon a judge's adjudicative (as opposed to, for example, administrative) duties are barred by judicial immunity. See, e.g., Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 12-13 (1991).
In so many words, Edenfield said it was fine for Calhoun to be bribed as long as he acted corruptly in his official capacity as a judge. And Edenfield, believe it or not, got the law right.
How many Americans are aware of such law? How many of them, if they were aware of it, would be outraged?
The same issue almost certainly will be raised in the case involving Rosa Parks' estate. Could that help spark a groundswell of opposition to judicial immunity, one that will have judges quaking in their robes?
Let's hope so. If that were to happen, it would make one more debt of gratitude we owe to Rosa Parks.
Blackburn Calhoun Opinion