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Judicial Immunity

Article excerpt

Babble in the Hallway, but Not to the Press

California judges are protected by absolute immunity for hallway statements made off the bench about cases before them, but they are not protected if they make false statements to the news media, the California Court of Appeal held in Soliz v. Williams, 88 Cal.Rptr.2d 184 (Cal.App. 1999).

A Los Angeles County employee, Robert Soliz, who was a litigant in a case before Los Angeles trial judge Alexander H. Williams III, sued Williams for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and defamation for statements Williams made to him in the courthouse hallway during a recess in settlement negotiations. Soliz and other employees were engaged in litigation against Los Angeles County. He alleged that Williams, who was not wearing his judicial robe in the hallway incident, yelled that the settlement demands made by Soliz and his fellow litigants were "bullshit" and that if they thought there was money in the case, they had "shit for brains," adding that he now was their "enemy."

The plaintiffs sought disqualification of Williams in their case against Los Angeles County, but he denied the motion, although eventually he recused himself from the litigation. Three days later, Williams gave an interview to a legal newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, in which he denied the incident. The fourth Soliz cause of action was for defamation based on the statements in this interview, which, it was alleged, Williams knew were false.

Later the California Commission on Judicial Performance, finding Soliz's allegations regarding the incident true, publicly admonished Williams for misconduct. …