What would you do if a judge came into your home without a warrant and started demanding that your ex-spouse take some of your personal belongings? You would probably feel like your rights had been violated, and you would want to hold that judge accountable. But a doctrine called “judicial immunity” makes it almost impossible to sue judges when they violate people’s constitutional rights.
That’s exactly what happened to Matt Gibson in March 2020 during a divorce proceeding between him and his ex-wife in Raleigh County, West Virginia. In the middle of the proceedings, Judge Louise Goldston abruptly halted the hearing, asked for Matt’s address, and ordered everyone to meet there. She then proceeded to lead a search party through Matt’s home. Judge Goldston never got a search warrant, and when Matt said the judge couldn’t enter his home without one, she responded, “Oh yeah, I will.” Each time Matt’s ex-wife claimed an item belonged to her, Judge Goldston ordered her to take the item. Multiple items actually belonged to Matt’s girlfriend or his children, not his ex-wife.
Knowing his rights were being violated, Matt and his girlfriend began recording the encounter. When Judge Goldston noticed, she threatened to arrest Matt and demanded that the bailiff seize his phone. (The bailiff later recorded part of the search without the judge’s permission, and the judge chastised him when she found out.) While the search party made its way through Matt’s house, Judge Goldston walked around barefoot and ultimately relaxed in Matt’s rocking chair while his ex-wife and court officials continued looking around.
Judge Goldston’s actions threatened the judge’s ability to be unbiased in Matt’s case and jeopardized the neutrality of the judicial process. Her actions were condemned by the West Virginia high court as unbecoming of a judge, and she was charged with ethics violations, censured, and fined. Despite that, when Matt sued, Judge Goldston attempted to get his claims thrown out of court by arguing that she was entitled to judicial immunity.
Judicial immunity is intended to protect judges from civil lawsuits for actions performed within their roles as judges. But leading a search party is an action reserved for members of the executive branch — specifically, law enforcement officers — not judicial officials.
Although judicial immunity originated in historical England, the modern American doctrine looks very little like its English ancestor. The English doctrine only protected some judges some of the time. The American doctrine essentially protects all judges at all times. But the American doctrine still has one big caveat: To claim judicial immunity successfully, a judge must be acting within her role as a judge. If she steps outside of that role — for instance, by acting like an official in another branch of government — she is not entitled to judicial immunity’s special protection.
When Matt first brought his lawsuit against Judge Goldston, the trial court realized she was acting like a law enforcement officer instead of a judge and denied her judicial immunity claim. But now, Judge Goldston is appealing her case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing once again that she should not be held accountable for violating Matt’s rights.
When she stepped out of her role as judge, Judge Goldston violated a host of Matt’s constitutional rights. For example, she violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting a search without a warrant, the First Amendment by threatening Matt with arrest for filming the interaction, and the 14th Amendment by depriving Matt of his right to be heard before she decided to search his home. It’s clear she should not be shielded from accountability for her actions that day. Nor should any other rights-violating judge avoid accountability simply because they wear a robe.
No one is above the law, least of all the judges we entrust to administer it.
Tori Clark is an attorney at the Institute for Justice.