Finality of Judgment as an Attribute of Judicial Power

Finality of Judgment as an Attribute of Judicial Power

Since 1792, the federal courts have emphasized finality of judgment as an essential attribute of judicial power. In that year, Congress authorized Revolutionary War veterans to file pension claims in circuit courts of the United States, directed the judges to certify to the Secretary of War the degree of a claimant’s disability and their opinion with regard to the proper percentage of monthly pay to be awarded, and empowered the Secretary to withhold judicially certified claimants from the pension list if he suspected “imposition or mistake.”146 The Justices then on circuit almost immediately forwarded objections to the President, contending that the statute was unconstitutional because the judicial power was constitutionally committed to a separate department and the duties imposed by the act were not judicial, and because the subjection of a court’s opinions to revision or conrol by an officer of the executive or the legislature was not authorized by the Constitution.147 Attorney General Randolph, upon the refusal of the circuit courts to act under the new statute, filed a motion for mandamus in the Supreme Court to direct the Circuit Court in Pennsylvania to proceed on a petition filed by one Hayburn seeking a pension. Although the Court heard argument, it put off decision until the next term, presumably because Congress was already acting to delete the objectionable features of the act, and upon enactment of a new law the Court dismissed the action.148 Hayburn’s Case has been since followed, so that the Court has rejected all efforts to give it and the lower federal courts jurisdiction over cases in which judgment would have been subject to exective or legislative revision.149 Thus, in a 1948 case, the Court held that an order of the Civil Aeronautics Board denying to one citizen air carrier and granting to another a certificate of convenience and necessity for an overseas and foreign air route was not reviewable. Such an order was subject to review and confirmance or revision by the President, and the Court decided it could not review the discretion exercised by him in that situation; the lower court had thought the matter could be handled by permitting presidential review of the order after judicial review, but this the Court rejected. “[I]f the President may completely disregard the judgment of the court, it would be only because it is one the courts were not authorized to render. Judgments within the powers vested in courts by the Judiciary Article of the Constitution may not lawfully be revised, overturned or refused faith and credit by another Department of Government,”150 More recently, the Court avoided a similar situation by a close construction of a statute.151

143 Which was, of course, the point of Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803), once the power of the Court to hold legislation unconstitutional was established.

144 The Mayor v. Cooper, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 247, 252 (1868); Cary v. Curtis, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 236 (1845); Sheldon v. Sill, 49 U.S. (8 How.) 441 (1850); United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 32, 33 (1812); Kline v. Burke Construction Co., 260 U.S. 226 (1922). It should be noted, however, that some judges have expressed the opinion that Congress’ authority is limited to some degree by the Constitution, such as by the due process clause, so that a limitation on jurisdiction which denied a litigant access to any remedy might be unconstitutional. Cf. Eisentrager v. Forrestal, 174 F.2d 961, 965-966 (D.C. Cir. 1949), revd. on other grounds sub nom, Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763 (1950); Battaglia v. General Motors Corp., 169 F.2d 254, 257 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 335 U.S. 887 (1948); Petersen v. Clark, 285 F. Supp. 700, 703 n.5 (N.D. Calif. 1968); Murray v. Vaughn, 300 F. Supp. 688, 694-695 (D.R.I. 1969). The Supreme Court has had no occasion to consider the question.

145 Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8 (1799); Bingham v. Cabot, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 382 (1798); Jackson v. Ashton, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 148 (1834); Mitchell v. Maurer, 293 U.S. 237 (1934).

146 Act of March 23, 1792, 1 Stat. 243.

147 1 AMERICAN STATE PAPERS: MISCELLANEOUS DOCUMENTS, LEGISLATIVE AND EXECUTIVE, OF THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES 49, 51, 52 (1832). President Washington transmitted the remonstrances to Congress. 1 MESSAGES AND PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS 123, 133 (J. Richardson comp., 1897). The objections are also appended to the order of the Court in Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409, 410 (1792). Note that some of the Justices declared their willingness to perform under the act as commissioners rather than as judges. Cf. United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40, 52-53 (1852). The assumption by judges that they could act in some positions as individuals while remaining judges, an assumption many times acted upon, was approved in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 397-408 (1989).

148 Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792). The new pension law was the Act of February 28, 1793, 1 Stat. 324. The reason for the Court’s inaction may, on the other hand, have been doubt about the proper role of the Attorney General in the matter, an issue raised in the opinion. See Marcus & Teir, Hayburn’s Case: A Misinterpretation of Precedent, 1988 WIS. L. REV. 4; Bloch, The Early Role of the Attorney General in Our Constitutional Scheme: In the Beginning There was Pragmatism, 1989 DUKE L. J. 561, 590-618. Notice the Court’s discussion in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218, 225-26 (1995).

149 See United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40 (1852); Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865); In re Sanborn, 148 U.S. 222 (1893); cf. McGrath v. Kritensen, 340 U.S. 162, 167-168 (1950).

150 Chicago & S. Air Lines v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 333 U.S. 103, 113-114 (1948).

151 Connor v. Johnson, 402 U.S. 690 (1971). Under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 437, 42 U.S.C. § 1973e, no State may “enact or seek to administer” any change in election law or practice different from that in effect on a particular date without obtaining the approval of the Attorney General or the district court in the District of Columbia, a requirement interpreted to reach reapportionment and redistricting. Allen v. State Bd. of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969); Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379 (1971). The issue in Connor was whether a districting plan drawn up and ordered into effect by a federal district court, after it had rejected a legislatively-drawn plan, must be submitted for approval. Unanimously, on the papers without oral argument, the Court ruled that, despite the statute’s inclusive language, it did not apply to court-drawn plans.

Award of Execution.—The adherence of the Court to this proposition, however, has not extended to a rigid rule formulated by Chief Justice Taney, given its fullest expression in a post-humously-published opinion.152 In Gordon v. United States,153 the Court refused to hear an appeal from a decision of the Court of Claims; the act establishing the Court of Claims provided for appeals to the Supreme Court, after which judgments in favor of claimants were to be referred to the Secretary of the Treasury for payments out of the general appropriation for payment of private claims. But the act also provided that no funds should be paid out of the Treasury for any claims “till after an appropriation therefor shall be estimated by the Secretary of the Treasury.”154 The opinion of the Court merely stated that the implication of power in the executive officer and in Congress to revise all decisions of the Court of Claims requiring payment of money denied that court the judicial power from the exercise of which “alone” appeals could be taken to the Supreme Court.155

In his posthumously-published opinion, Chief Justice Taney, because the judgment of the Court of Claims and the Supreme Court depended for execution upon future action of the Secretary and of Congress, regarded any such judgment as nothing more than a certificate of opinion and in no sense a judicial judgment. Congress could not therefore authorize appeals to the Supreme Court in a case where its judicial power could not be exercised, where its judgment would not be final and conclusive upon the parties, and where processes of execution were not awarded to carry it into effect. Taney then proceeded to enunciate a rule which was rigorously applied until 1933: the award of execution is a part and an essential part of every judgment passed by a court exercising judicial powers and no decision was a legal judgment without an award of execution.156 The rule was most significant in barring the lower federal courts from hearing proceedings for declaratory judgments157 and in denying appellate jurisdiction in the Supreme Court from declaratory proceedings in state courts.158 But, in 1927, the Court began backing away from its absolute insistence upon an award of execution. Unanimously holding that a declaratory judgment in a state court was res judicata in a subsequent proceeding in federal court, the Court admitted that “[w]hile ordinarily a case or judicial controversy results in a judgment requiring award of process of execution to carry it into effect, such relief is not an indispensable adjunct to the exercise of the judicial function.”159 Then, in 1933, the Court interred the award-of-execution rule in its rigid form and accepted an appeal from a state court in a declaratory proceeding.160 Finality of judgment, however, remains the rule in determination of what is judicial power without regard to the demise of Chief Justice Taney’s formulation.

Judicial Immunity from Suit.—Under common law — the Supreme Court has not elevated judicial immunity from suit to a constitutional principle — judges “are responsible to the people alone for the manner in which they perform their duties. If faithless, if corrupt, if dishonest, if partial, if oppressive or arbitrary, they may be called to account by impeachment, and removed from office… But responsible they are not to private parties in civil actions for the judicial acts, however injurious may be those acts, and however much they may deserve condemnation, unless perhaps where the acts are palpably in excess of the jurisdiction of the judges, and are done maliciously or corruptly.”1 Three years later, the Court qualified this exception to judges’ immunity: the phrase beginning “unless, perhaps,” the Court wrote, was “not necessary to a correct statement of the law, and . . . judges . . . 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,” with judges subject to liability only in the latter instance.2

In Stump v. Sparkman, the Court upheld the immunity of a judge who approved a petition from the mother of a 15-year-old girl to have the girl sterilized without her knowledge (she was told that she was to have her appendix removed).3 In a 5-to-3 opinion, the Court found that there was not the “clear absence of all jurisdiction” that is required to hold a judge civilly liable. The judge had jurisdiction “in all cases at law and in equity whatsoever,” except where exclusive jurisdiction is “conferred by law upon some other court, board, or officer,” and no statute or case law prohibited the judge from considering a petition for sterilization.4 The Court also rejected the argument that the judge's approving the petition had not constituted a “judicial act.” The Court found “that the factors determining whether an act by a judge is a ‘judicial’ one relate to the nature of the act itself, i.e., whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties, i.e., whether they dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity… Judge Stump performed the type of act normally performed only by judges and . . . he did so in his capacity as a [judge].”5

Although judges are generally immune from suits for damages, the Court has held that a judge may be enjoined from enforcing a court rule, such as a restriction on lawyer advertising that violates the First Amendment.6 Similarly, a state court magistrate may be enjoined from “imposing bail on persons arrested for nonjailable offenses under Virginia law and . . . incarcerating those persons if they could not meet the bail…”7 But what if the prevailing party, as it did in these two cases, seeks an award of attorneys’ fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976?8 The Court found that “Congress intended to permit attorney’s fees awards in cases in which prospective relief was properly awarded against defendants who would be immune from damage awards.”9 In fact, “Congress’ intent could hardly be more plain. Judicial immunity is no bar to the award of attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.”10

1 Randall v. Brigham, 74 U.S. 523, 537 (1869). Judicial immunity “is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice … Liability . . . would destroy that independence without which no judiciary can be either respectable or useful… Nor can this exemption of the judges from civil liability be affected by the motives with which their judicial acts are performed.” Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 347 (1872).

2 Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 351 (1872). The Court offered a hypothetical example of the distinction. A judge of a probate court who held a criminal trial would act in clear absence of all jurisdiction over the subject matter, whereas a judge of a criminal court who held a criminal trial for an offense that was not illegal would act merely in excess of his jurisdiction. Id. at 352. 3 435 U.S. 349 (1978).

4 435 U.S. at 357, 358. The defendant was an Indiana state court judge, but the suit was in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court noted that it had held in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967), that there was no indication that, in enacting this statute, Congress had intended to abolish the principle of judicial immunity established in Bradley v. Fisher, supra.

5 435 U.S. at 362. Justice Stewart’s dissent, joined by Justices Marshall and Powell, concluded that what Judge Stump did “was beyond the pale of anything that could sensibly be called a judicial act.” Id. at 365. Indiana law, Justice Stewart wrote, provided for administrative proceedings for the sterilization of certain people who were institutionalized (which the girl in this case was not), and what Judge Stump did “was in no way an act ‘normally performed by a judge.’” Id. at 367.

6 Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of the United States, 446 U.S. 719 (1980).

152 The opinion was published in 117 U.S. 697. See supra, and text. See United States v. Jones, 119 U.S. 477 (1886). The Chief Justice’s initial effort was in United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40 (1852).

153 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865).

154 Act of February 24, 1855, 10 Stat. 612, as amended, Act of March 3, 1963, 12 Stat. 737.

155 Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865). Following repeal of the objectionable section, Act of March 17, 1866, 14 Stat. 9, the Court accepted appellate jurisdiction. United States v. Jones, 119 U.S. 477 (1886); De Groot v. United States, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 419 (1867). But note that execution of the judgments was still dependent upon congressional appropriations. On the effect of the requirement for appropriations at a time when appropriations had to be made for judgments over $100,000, see Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, 370 U.S. 530, 568-571 (1962). Cf. Regional Rail Reorganization Act Cases (Blanchette v. Connecticut General Ins. Corp.), 419 U.S. 102, 148-149 & n. 35 (1974).

156 Published at 117 U.S. 697, 703. Subsequent cases accepted the doctrine that an award of execution as distinguished from finality of judgment was an essential attribute of judicial power. See In re Sanborn, 148 U.S. 122, 226, (1893); ICC v. Brimson, 154 U.S. 447, 483 (1894); La Abra Silver Mining Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 423, 457 (1899); Frasch v. Moore, 211 U.S. 1 (1908); Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 355, 361-362 (1911): Postum Cereal Co. v. California Fig Nut Co., 272 U.S. 693 (1927).

157 Liberty Warehouse Co. v. Grannis, 273 U.S. 70 (1927).

158 Liberty Warehouse Co. v. Burley Tobacco Growers’ Coop. Marketing Ass’n, 276 U.S. 71 (1928).

159 Fidelity Nat’l Bank & Trust Co. v. Swope, 274 U.S. 123, 132 (1927).

160 Nashville, C. & St. L. Ry. v. Wallace, 288 U.S. 249 (1933). The decisions in Swope and Wallace removed all constitutional doubts previously shrouding a proposed federal declaratory judgment act, which was enacted in 1934, 48 Stat. 955, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-2202, and unanimously sustained in Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227 (1937). Wallace and Haworth were cited with approval in Medimmune, Inc. v. Genetech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118, 126 (2007) (“Article III’s limitation of federal courts’ jurisdiction to ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies,’ reflected in the ‘actual controversy’ requirement of the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a), [does not] require[ ] a patent licensee to terminate or be in breach of its license agreement before it can seek a declaratory judgment that the underlying patent is invalid, unenforceable, or not infringed,” id. at 767).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014