Following a hearing that lasted just over an hour in Faulkner County this morning, Judge David Laser dismissed former Circuit Judge–and failed Court of Appeals candidate–Mike Maggio from a civil suit brought by the family of Martha Bull.
Judge Laser, sitting by special appointment from the Arkansas Supreme Court after all of the 20th Judicial District judges recused, noted that this was “one decision [he would] rather not make.” The judge then noted that “the pivotal event” in this case was the entry of the order of remittitur that reduced the jury verdict against Michael Morton’s nursing home from $5.2M to $1M, and the entry of that order was “clearly a judicial act,” which meant that Maggio was immune from a civil suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity.
Both Lauren Hamilton, representing Maggio, and Thomas Buchanan, representing the Estate of Martha Bull, agreed that judicial immunity protects judges from civil liability for judicial acts, even where those acts are negligent, incompetent, or even malicious. The two recognized exceptions to judicial immunity from civil suits are where the judge acted completely without jurisdiction or where the act is administrative, rather than judicial, in nature.
Judge Laser also noted that judicial immunity does not shield a judge from criminal liability, nor does it shield a judge from being disciplined by the Judicial Discipline & Disability Committee, and he referenced Maggio’s entry of a guilty plea to federal bribery charges back in January.
The complaint in the civil suit against Maggio claimed that Maggio had abused the public trust, which is a class D felony in Arkansas, and that this abuse made him liable to Ms. Bull’s estate under the statute that allows victims of a felony to bring a civil action; that Maggio breached a fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs by engaging in conduct that violated certain judicial and statutory rules; that Maggio engaged in a civil conspiracy with Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton; and that Maggio acted in concert with Morton and Baker.
Hamilton argued from the outset of the hearing that the only act by Maggio that might arguably have damaged the plaintiffs was his entry of the order of remittitur, which was, by definition, a judicial act, since Maggio had the authority to enter that order by virtue of being a circuit judge. Furthermore, Hamilton argued, allegations of bad faith or malice toward the plaintiffs did not turn Maggio’s entry of the order into a non-judicial act. “It is not judicial to take a bribe,” Hamilton conceded. However, because the entry of the order was the specific act that gave rise to the plaintiffs’ claims, judicial immunity was an absolute bar to the civil suit, according to Hamilton.
Buchanan countered that entering that order after illegally accepting a bribe to do so made the order less the product of a judicial act and more the product of a crime. Therefore, according to Buchanan, what makes this case different from other cases where judicial immunity applied is the intertwining of non-judicial acts with judicial acts. Specifically, Buchanan noted Maggio’s illegal solicitation and acceptance of campaign contributions in violation of state law.
“How were the plaintiffs damaged other than by the remittitur order?,” Judge Laser interjected. “If [Maggio] hadn’t entered the order, we wouldn’t be here, would we?” “Probably not,” conceded Buchanan, noting that the damages relate specifically to Maggio’s entry of the order.
“The fact remains,” Buchanan continued, that Maggio’s solicitation and acceptance of the contributions and Maggio’s admission that those contributions had an impact on his entry of the order “means that the actions were not solely judicial.”
“This is a damage suit,” Judge Laser responded. “Without the order, there’s no damage.”
Judge Laser noted that he did not like the situation presented at the hearing, but “sometimes we have to be satisfied with someone being kicked off the bench, removed from office, and probably losing some liberty.”
Ultimately, Judge Laser found that judicial immunity applied to this case based on all available court decisions on the issue. This was true, Judge Laser held, even where the judicial act, “as tainted as it may be, might be the fruit of a bribe [or] the culmination of the intent of the bribe.” Nevertheless, the bribe and other extra-judicial acts “did not bring us here [and] do not cause direct damage to the plaintiffs.”
In explaining his ruling, Judge Laser stated from the bench:
I’m not here to make any new law. I have to follow established precedent, no matter how personally distasteful it may be. I believe [the] entry of the order is a judicial act, not an administrative one.
Because the dismissal was technically for plaintiffs’ failure to state a claim upon which the Court could grant relief, it was dismissed without prejudice to refiling.
In addition to the same claims that were brought against Maggio, the complaint contains an additional allegation that Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton violated Ms. Bull’s civil rights. A hearing on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, filed jointly by Baker and Morton, is set for May 19 at 1:30pm.