Rockett v. Eighmy
This appeal stems from a Missouri domestic relations matter in which the children, B.R. and K.R., stated that they did not wish to leave with their mother following a custody modification hearing and settlement. Upon hearing this, the judge chastised the children for their disagreement and then illegally held them for an hour in separate cells at the county jail. When threatened with the possibly of being placed in foster care, the children agreed to live with their mother. Months later, the same judge sua sponte issued a “Pick Up Order” for the children, who were living with their father in Louisiana. The children were taken to a juvenile detention center, strip-searched, and held in separate cells for two days.
B.R. and K.R.’s father, as next friend of his children, filed a complaint against the judge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Western District of Missouri. Finding that the judge was not entitled to judicial immunity, the district court denied his motion to dismiss. The judge filed an interlocutory appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
NACC filed an amicus brief, arguing that the district court’s decision should be affirmed on several grounds. First, the children were not afforded due process before they were detained. Second, the judge did not carefully ascertain and give appropriate weight to the children’s custodial preferences. Third, the judge’s actions were not aligned with his responsibility as a family court judge “to facilitate consensual resolutions to the degree possible, while always safeguarding the rights, safety and well-being of children.” Lastly, NACC argued that the judge’s “actions in this case, if countenanced as a routine act of judicial authority,” raise concerns about the disproportionate and disparate treatment of youth of color who are involved with the court system.
On June 22, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued its opinion. The Eighth Circuit explained that when determining whether a judge is entitled to judicial immunity, the court must distinguish “between judicial acts and the administrative, legislative, or executive functions that judges may on occasion . . . perform.” The Eighth Circuit found that by personally escorting the children to jail and subsequently releasing them, the judge went beyond a judicial act and was, thus, not entitled to judicial immunity. It rejected the judge’s argument that he was exercising his contempt power because “the children were never parties, they never stepped foot in the courtroom, and [the judge] personally locked them up himself.” Nevertheless, the Eighth Circuit held that because the judge had jurisdiction to issue the pick-up order for the children, he is immune from civil suit on that ground. The Eighth Circuit “accordingly affirm[ed] in part, reverse[d] in part, and remand[ed] for further proceedings on the first of the two incidents.”