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Judge who jailed teens must face suit from father

Scott Lauck//June 23, 2023

The Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse

The Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse (File photo)

Judge who jailed teens must face suit from father

Scott Lauck//June 23, 2023

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled June 22 that a Missouri state judge cannot claim immunity from allegations that he jailed the children of a divorced couple in a custody dispute.

The ruling against Taney County Associate Circuit Judge Eric Eighmy marks a rare lawsuit against a sitting judge that avoided dismissal under the doctrine of judicial immunity, which broadly protects judicial officers acting in their official capacity.

“But here, the children were never parties, they never stepped foot in the courtroom, and Judge Eighmy personally locked them up himself,” Judge David R. Stras wrote for the 8th Circuit panel. “We have been unable to find any case that extends judicial immunity so far.”

Hugh Eastwood, a St. Louis-based attorney representing the children’s father, said the facts of the case are highly unusual.

“I think that’s because, as the opinion points out, no one can find any case where any judge remotely did anything like what Judge Eighmy did,” he said.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is representing Eighmy in the case, didn’t return a message seeking comment. Eighmy didn’t return a message left with his chambers.

In a brief on Eighmy’s behalf, the attorney general argued that his actions were “well within the scope of the judicial function.”

“Judicial immunity does not turn on whether a judge followed every punctilio of procedure or even whether a judge acted properly and within his authority,” the brief states. “It turns on whether the judge acted like a judge.”

The case involves D. Bart Rockett and Kami Ballard, who divorced in Missouri in 2009 but moved to California so their two children could pursue entertainment careers. Kami Ballard later sought sole custody of the children in a suit filed in Taney County Circuit Court, which led to a hearing before Eighmy in 2019.

According to the suit, the two parents worked out an agreement for the children to stay with their mother for a month before returning to live with their father. The children, who were in their early teens at the time, objected to the plan and refused to back down even when Eighmy intervened in the argument in the courthouse hall.

Rockett alleges that Eighmy took the teens to a conference room and, after they continued to protest, personally escorted them to jail, where they were placed in separate cells for about an hour. The suit alleges the children agreed to comply after the judge threatened to put them in foster care.

The father filed a civil rights suit in 2021 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. Judge Douglas Harpool declined to grant immunity. The 8th Circuit mostly agreed.

Stras said the allegation that Eighmy personally escorted the children to jail “took what would otherwise be a judicial act too far.” While judges — particularly in family law cases — have broad powers, Stras noted that the children had not disrupted or even been present in the courtroom, and that “judges do not do double duty as jailers.”

“So even assuming Judge Eighmy could have ordered someone else to take the kids to jail, he could not put them there himself,” he wrote. Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith and Judge Jonathan A. Kobes concurred.

Rockett also argued the judge had caused his children to be jailed a second time after the father and children missed a court hearing while living in Louisiana. Eighmy issued a “pick-up” order that prompted deputies in that state to arrest the children and place them in a juvenile-detention center. The Missouri Supreme Court issued a writ of prohibition that vacated the order.

Harpool had allowed that count to proceed against Eighmy, but the 8th Circuit reversed. Stras wrote that while Eighmy may have lacked authority to issue such an order, he did have subject-matter over the case under Missouri law and could not be sued for that action.

The case drew interest from the Institute for Justice, the National Police Accountability Project and the National Association of Counsel for Children, who had urged the court to allow Rockett’s suit to proceed and not to expand judicial immunity’s protections.

Eastwood praised the opinion for its detailed treatment of the history of judicial immunity and said it would be of great use in defining the doctrine’s limits in other cases.

“I think judges are going to give the benefit of the doubt a lot of the time to judges,” he said. “The opinion’s not going to open the doors to all sorts of immunity claims from every disgruntled litigant. I just don’t see that.”

Eighmy, previously a solo practitioner in Branson, was elected to the Taney County bench in 2014 and most recently retained in office last year, when he ran unopposed.

The case is Rockett v. Eighmy, 21-3903.

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