A federal court recently told a Lawrence County woman she’s simply out of luck and can’t sue local officials, including a Common Pleas judge who apparently made up a criminal charge that was used to place her on electronic monitoring.
A judge has absolute civil immunity, even if the action “was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority,” the three-judge panel ruled in its six-page opinion.
Judge Thomas Piccione had ordered Lynn Van Tassel to report to jail after she didn’t pay her ex-husband’s attorney’s fees as ordered — even though she was appealing that order. He sentenced her to 90 days in jail and had her arrested on a bench warrant.
He then put a criminal charge in the system to place her on electronic monitoring. Van Tassel had never been charged with anything, much less had a trial or been convicted. And the law the judge used clearly describes what it’s for, and there’s certainly no mention of using it to collect attorney fees.
Van Tassel was almost fired for being absent without leave from work because she was in jail and the criminal charge she could provide no paperwork for, because that process hadn’t occurred in any real-world way.
But there’s no remedy for Van Tassel.
Like a bad April Fool’s Day joke, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit officially agreed April 1 with the district court’s tossing of the case.
Van Tassel had sued the judge, the chief probation officer, the jail warden, a state trooper and the district attorney for violating a variety of her constitutional rights.
Instead of filing something in her existing case file, the court used a miscellaneous docket, listing a charge that looks like it could be relevant. It’s described as “contempt for violation of order or agreement.” That law deals with “indirect criminal contempt,” and under that section a judge certainly can fine and jail someone.
But there’s a problem — or looks like there should be. That law is in a chapter titled “Protection from Abuse,” and the law Van Tassel is made to look like she violated distinctly talks about protection from abuse orders.
There is no PFA in Van Tassel’s case, however, that she could have violated. While that law does discuss fines, they are to go to specific agencies — there’s nothing about “fines” to pay someone else’s attorney’s fees. Additionally, James Manolis is a partner with Piccione’s former partner. It was Manolis’ fees that Van Tassel didn’t promptly pay, resulting in jail time.
Van Tassel was jailed for six days before there was any hearing, though state law seems to require one within three.
Van Tassel was on electronic monitoring for a little over a month, paying $750 for that, and Manolis told Watchdog.org on Friday the attorney’s fees totaled more than $10,000 after Van Tassel’s appeals.
The federal court was not concerned the court seems to have made up its own procedure to use electronic monitoring in civil cases, here to essentially play collection agency for an attorney.
When Watchdog asked Piccione for comment, his secretary returned the call, saying only “he is not able to comment on cases.”
There are other remedies for alleged judicial misconduct — in theory. Van Tassel could file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania or try to have Piccone prosecuted for any false swearing involved with filing that charge.
She tried both and got nowhere. The Judicial Conduct Board denied her complaint, and she said the attorney general’s office, weirdly, referred her to the consumer complaint department.
Longtime Pennsylvania lawyer Charles Steele confirmed to Watchdog, “Suing a judge is almost impossible.”
It’s a matter of public policy. Otherwise, “you open the floodgates for every frustrated party,” he said, “though that doesn’t mean that judges don’t abuse their positions.”
One of the landmark cases on judicial immunity is Stump v. Sparkman, in 1978. The U.S. Supreme Court said even that judge couldn’t be sued — even though he approved a mother’s petition for authority to sterilize her “somewhat retarded” 15-year-old daughter who was perhaps having sex with boys older than her or young men, “in order ‘to prevent unfortunate circumstances.’”
The judge approved the petition the same day, without filing with the clerk and without any sort of hearing. The daughter was told she was having her appendix removed and didn’t find out about the forced sterilization until she was married and couldn’t conceive.
Nonetheless, no liability.
Originally published on http://watchdog.org/211545/no-liability-for-judge/