Pulliam, Magistrate for the County of Culpeper, Virginia v. Allen
Decided on May 14, 1984; 466 US 522


A. Issues Discussed: Governmental Authority (immunity), 14th Amendment

B. Legal Questions Presented:

What is the scope of judicial immunity from a civil suit that seeks injunctive and declaratory relief under § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and from fee awards made under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1988?

Does judicial immunity bar the award of attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 against a member of the judiciary acting in his judicial capacity?


A. Background:

Respondents were arrested for nonjailable misdemeanors. Petitioner, a Magistrate in a Virginia county, imposed bail, and when respondents were unable to meet the bail petitioner committed them to jail. Subsequently, respondents brought an action against petitioner in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that petitioner's practice of imposing bail on persons arrested for nonjailable offenses under Virginia law and of incarcerating those persons if they could not meet the bail was unconstitutional. The court agreed and enjoined the practice, and also awarded respondents costs and attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976. Determining that judicial immunity did not extend to injunctive relief under § 1983 and that prospective injunctive relief properly had been awarded against petitioner, the Court of Appeals affirmed the award of attorney's fees.

Petitioners appealed their case again and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

Deborah Chasen Wyatt argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief was John Calvin Jeffries, Jr.
Gerald L. Baliles, Attorney General of Virginia, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were William G. Broaddus, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Donald C.J. Gehring and Elizabeth B. Lacy, Deputy Attorneys General, and Jerry P. Slonaker, Assistant Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Burt Neuborne and E. Richard Larson; and for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers by J. Lloyd Snook III. Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Minnesota et al. by Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, Kent G. Harbison, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Douglas C. Blomgren and D. Douglas Blanke, Special Assistant Attorneys General, and the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Charles A. Graddick of Alabama, Norman C. Gorsuch of Alaska, Robert K. Corbin of Arizona, John Steven Clark of Arkansas, John Van de Kamp of California, Duane Woodard of Colorado, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Charles M. Oberly III of Delaware, Jim Smith of Florida, Michael J. Bowers of Georgia, Tany S. Hong of Hawaii, Jim Jones of Idaho, Neil F. Hartigan of Illinois, Linley E. Pearson of Indiana, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Robert T. Stephan of Kansas, Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky, William J. Guste, Jr., of Louisiana, James E. Tierney of Maine, Stephan H. Sachs of Maryland, Francis X. Bellotti of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, William A. Allain of Mississippi, John D. Ashcroft of Missouri, Michael T. Greely of Montana, Paul L. Douglas of Nebraska, Brian McKay of Nevada, Gregory H. Smith of New Hampshire, Irwin I. Kimmelman of New Jersey, Robert Abrams of New York, Rufus L. Edmisten of North Carolina, Robert O. Wefald of North Dakota, Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., of Ohio, Michael C. Turpen of Oklahoma, David Frohnmayer of Oregon, Leroy S. Zimmerman of Pennsylvania, Dennis J. Roberts II of Rhode Island, T. Travis Medlock of South Carolina, Mark V. Meierhenry of South Dakota, William M. Leech, Jr., of Tennessee, Jim Mattox of Texas, David L. Wilkinson of Utah, John J. Easton, Jr., of Vermont, Kenneth O. Eikenberry of Washington, Chauncey H. Browning, Jr., of West Virginia, Bronson C. La Follette of Wisconsin, and A.G. McClintock of Wyoming; for the American Bar Association by Morris Harrell, W. Ervin James, and Phillip J. Roth; for the Conference of Chief Justices by Paul L. Friedman and Michael D. Sullivan; for the Honorable Lawrence H. Cooke, Chief Judge of the State of New York, by Paul A. Feigenbaum, Michael Colodner, and Kenneth Falk; and for the Honorable Abraham J. Gafni, Court Administrator of Pennsylvania, by Howland W. Abramson and Charles W. Johns

 “[J]udicial immunity is not a bar to prospective injunctive relief against a judicial officer acting in her judicial capacity.

Common-law principles of legislative and judicial immunity incorporated into [the U.S.] judicial system should not be abrogated absent clear legislative intent to do so. To the extent that [the judiciary relies] on the common-law practice in shaping [US] doctrine of judicial immunity... the control exercised by the King's Bench through the prerogative writs is highly relevant. Although there were no injunctions against common-law judges, there is a common-law parallel to the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 injunction at issue. That parallel is found in the collateral prospective relief available against judges through the use of the King's prerogative writs. [This history] indicates that, at least in the view of the common law, there was no inconsistency between a principle of immunity that protected judicial authority from a wide, wasting, and harassing persecution, and the availability of collateral injunctive relief in exceptional cases...

Congress intended § 1983 to be an independent protection for federal rights and find nothing to suggest that Congress intended to expand the common-law doctrine of judicial immunity to insulate state judges completely from federal collateral review...

Judicial immunity is no bar to the award of attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Congress has made clear in § 1988 its intent that attorney's fees be available in any action to enforce a provision of § 1983. The legislative history of the statute confirms Congress' intent that an attorney's fee award be available even when damages would be barred or limited by ‘immunity doctrines and special defenses, available only to public officials.'

The judgment of the Court of Appeals, allowing the award of attorney's fees against petitioner, is therefore affirmed.”

Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined Powell’s dissent)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined Powell’s dissent)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined Powell’s dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging affirmance. The United States Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's decision in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.