WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court stripped state court judges of their cloak of absolute immunity from lawsuits today, ruling that they may be sued by former employees.
The court, in an 8-0 opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, refused to extend the absolute immunity from lawsuits that all judges enjoy in their official, judicial capacity to their administrative functions.
It was not clear whether the ruling also applies to federal judges.
The ruling, in a sex discrimination case from Illinois, opens up state judges to similar suits from other disgruntled employees. However, the court stopped short of saying the judge is liable for his actions and sent the case back to lower court for further hearings.
O'Connor noted that "as a class, judges have long enjoyed a comparatively sweeping form of immunity, though one not perfectly well-defined. Judicial immunity apparently originated, in medieval times, as a device for discouraging collateral attacks and thereby helping to establish appellate procedures as the standard system for correcting judicial error."
However, O'Connor added, "administrative decisions, even though they may be essential to the very functioning of the courts, have not similarly been regarded as judicial acts. . . . In the case before us, we think it clear that (the judge) was acting in an administrative capacity when he demoted and discharged (the woman)."
O'Connor recognized the "threat of vexatious lawsuits by disgruntled ex-employees" could interfere with the judicial process but wrote that "it in no way serves to distinguish judges from other public officials who hire and fire subordinates."
The case was watched closely by women's rights groups who say sex discrimination in the nation's court system is widespread.
The National Organization for Women said bias against women is evident not only in employment decisions but in the handling of cases involving women, such as rape charges and wife abuse.
In other action today, the court:
--Refused to settle a child custody dispute between a mother who lives with her son in Louisiana and a father who lives in California. The court's 8-0 ruling said federal courts may not step in when state courts issue conflicting child custody decisions.
--Overturned the conviction of South Carolina Death Row inmate Dale Robert Yates, ruling 8 to 0 today that its 1985 court ruling striking down "burden-shifting" jury instructions should be applied retroactively.
The court's action in the immunity case came in a dispute originated by Cynthia Forrester. She was hired by Howard Lee White, a circuit judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit in Illinois and the presiding judge in Circuit Court in Jersey County.
Forrester was hired in April, 1977, to serve as a juvenile and adult probation officer. In July, 1979, she was appointed to supervise a program set up under a state grant to divert juveniles from the court system.
However, the judge fired her in October, 1980, and she later brought suit in federal court charging sex discrimination. A jury awarded her about $82,000 in damages, but courts overturned that decision, ruling that the judge was immune from such suits.