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SCHMIDT v. DEGEN

June 6, 1974

WILLIAM KARL SCHMIDT
v.
ELIZABETH M. DEGEN, individually and in her capacity as District Justice of the Peace of Kitnersville, Pennsylvania, JAMES TAYLOR, individually and as Sergeant, Police Department of Tinicum Township, Kintnersville, Pa. George Deer, individually and as Chief of Police of Tinicum Township, Kintnersville, Pa. TOWNSHIP OF TINICUM



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LUONGO

 This is a suit alleging violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983. *fn1" The defendants are Elizabeth M. Degen, a District Justice of the Peace in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania; James Taylor, Police Sergeant, Tinicum Township; George Derr, Chief of Police, Tinicum Township; and Tinicum Township. Before the court is the motion of District Justice Degen to dismiss the action as to her for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. F.R.C.P. 12(b) (6).

 On a motion to dismiss, the allegations of plaintiff's complaint must be taken as true. Frederick Hart & Company v. Recordgraph, 169 F.2d 580 (3d Cir. 1948); Melo-Sonics Corp. v. Cropp, 342 F.2d 856 (3d Cir. 1965). Accordingly, the complaint establishes that while driving through Tinicum on July 6, 1973, plaintiff, William Karl Schmidt, was stopped by a policeman and arrested on various charges of disorderly practices and causing a disturbance on the property of one John Hulbard. The charges included acting in a disorderly manner, discarding beer bottles, cans or other debris; congregating unlawfully with others; failing to comply with the lawful order of the Tinicum Township police; marring or destroying a "no trespassing" sign by burning it; and conspiring with others to perform these acts.

 Schmidt was tried on these offenses before defendant Degen on September 21, 1973. At that time only two witnesses testified against him, defendant Taylor and John Hulbard, the owner of the property at which the alleged offenses occurred. Taylor admitted that he had not arrested Schmidt and that he had no knowledge of Schmidt's supposed involvement in the disturbances beyond the fact that Schmidt's name appeared on a list of individuals allegedly at the scene of the disturbance. Taylor also had no knowledge as to how the list of suspects was compiled and how Schmidt's name came to be on it, although he believed that some of the names were taken from driver's licenses of people found in the vicinity of the disturbance. Hulbard testified that there was substantial disorder at his property, but stated that he did not see Schmidt on the premises. On this testimony, Degen found Schmidt guilty of the charged offenses and imposed a $50 fine plus $11 in court costs. Schmidt filed an appeal from that ruling, whereupon the charges against him were dropped.

 Schmidt charges that the guilty verdict rendered by Degen was arbitrary and unreasonable because there was no evidence to support it, and violated his constitutional rights to due process and to confront his accusers. He alleges that he suffered great anguish, humiliation, derision and scorn as a result of the conviction, and was required to expend considerable time and effort to appeal Degen's decision. He seeks $25,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages from defendants and asks that all records in the possession of Tinicum Township pertaining to his arrest and detention be expunged.

 District Justice Degen argues that the doctrine of judicial immunity insulates her from suits for damages arising out of the conduct of her judicial responsibilities, and therefore the action should be dismissed as to her. I agree and the motion to dismiss will be granted on that ground.

 Historically, " few doctrines were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction . . . ." Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288, 87 S. Ct. 1213 (1967). It can "be found in the earliest judicial records, and it has been steadily maintained by an undisturbed current of decision in the English courts, amidst every change of policy, and through every revolution of their government." Bauers v. Heisel, 361 F.2d 581, 587 (3d Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 386 U.S. 1021, 18 L. Ed. 2d 457, 87 S. Ct. 1367 (1967), quoting from Yates v. Lansing, 5 Johns., N.Y., 282, 291 (Sup. Ct. of Judicature 1810).

 Here in the United States, the Supreme Court recognized the doctrine's historic importance and the policy reasons necessitating its retention in Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 335, 20 L. Ed. 646 (1871). In that case, the court wrote:

 
" it is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself. Liability to answer to every one who might feel himself aggrieved by the action of the judge, would be inconsistent with the possession of this freedom, and would destroy that independence without which no judiciary can be either respectable or useful." 80 U.S. at 347

 The court continued in Bradley to define the scope of judicial immunity:

 
". . . judges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly. A distinction must be here observed between excess of jurisdiction and the clear absence of all jurisdiction over the subject-matter. Where there is clearly no jurisdiction over the subject-matter any authority exercised is a usurped authority, and for the exercise of such authority, when the want of jurisdiction is known to the judge, no excuse is permissible. * * *" 80 U.S. at 351-52.

 It was at one time arguable that Congress intended, by the enactment of § 1983, to abolish common law judicial immunity and subject judges to suits for damages for deprivations of civil rights. The Congress which enacted that statute had before it evidence that members of the judiciary were implicated in the systematic denial of civil rights which the statute was intended to remedy. The legislative history also affords some basis for concluding that Congress envisioned § 1983 as exposing judges to civil liability. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 559-562, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288, 87 S. Ct. 1213 (dissenting opinion of Douglas). Indeed, the Third Circuit ruled in Picking v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 151 F.2d 240, 250 (3d Cir. 1945) that § 1983 was intended to abolish judicial immunity "to the extent indicated by that act and in fact did so . . . ."

 More recently, however, that contention has been totally discredited. In Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367, 95 L. Ed. 1019, 71 S. Ct. 783 (1951), the Supreme Court carved out an exception in § 1983 to accommodate the common law doctrine of legislative immunity, holding that state legislators were immune from suit as long as the deprivation of civil rights alleged occurred while they "were acting in a field where legislators traditionally have power to act." 341 U.S. at 379. Tenney did not address the question of judicial immunity, but its relevance was obvious. The Third Circuit reversed the position taken in Picking and held that the common law judicial immunity defined by Bradley remained intact despite § 1983. Bauers v. Heisel, supra. A "plethora" of cases in other circuits were in agreement. See Bauers v. Heisel, supra, at 586 n. 7.

 In Pierson v. Ray, supra, the Supreme Court held explicitly that judges were immune from damage suits under the Civil Rights Act. In that case, several white and black clergymen on a "prayer" pilgrimage to promote integration were arrested and convicted of breach of peace after they had tried to use a segregated interstate bus terminal waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi. Because there was no evidence to support the charge, their conviction was reversed by the County Court. Thereafter, they initiated a § 1983 action against the ...


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