West Virginia Family Court Judge with History of Arranging Warrantless Searches Resigns
We may have finally discovered a limit to judicial immunity.
The rumors are true! Misbehaving judges do, occasionally, face consequences for their actions. Well, they do if their behavior is wildly egregious and widely publicized, anyway.
And so it is that West Virginia's Louise E. Goldston stepped down from the bench after being publicly called out, penalized, and threatened with impeachment for behaving more like a bronze-age chieftain than what you might hope of a member of the U.S. judiciary. That's a good start to imposing some boundaries for behavior.
"On Tuesday, West Virginia Family Court Judge Louise Goldston retired from her position amid a legislative push to impeach her for violating the rights of West Virginians," the Institute for Justice announced last week. "The resolution to impeach Goldston specifically mentions the judge leading a warrantless search of the home of Institute for Justice (IJ) client Matt Gibson. Despite her retirement, Matt and IJ will continue moving forward with their lawsuit against Goldston."
In March 2020 Goldston led an impromptu field trip to Gibson's house to resolve a post-divorce dispute between Gibson and his ex-wife, who alleged that Gibson still possessed some of her property. There, Goldston ordered a warrantless search of the house, denied Gibson's request that she recuse herself, and ordered him to stand by while officers tossed the place. While Gibson was forbidden to record the proceedings, he secretly captured some audio, a neighbor took video from outside, and a bailiff at the scene also made an audio recording.
The details of the case were covered in 2020 by Chris Dickerson of the West Virginia Record, which documents legal matters. Goldston faced disciplinary action over charges related to compliance with the law, confidence in the judiciary, avoiding abuse of prestige of office, impartiality and fairness, external influences, competence, diligence and cooperation and extrajudicial activities in general.
"Goldston admitted that she failed to inform Gibson of the purpose of the home visit and didn't give him a chance to object," added Dickerson. "She also said she thought it was proper to visit litigants' homes. In fact, she said she had done so 11 times in different cases over the years."
She wasn't alone. Last summer, in the course of denying Goldston's claim of judicial immunity (a truly rare event; treasure it), Bailiff Jeff McPeake and Deputy Bobby Stump, who are also being sued, testified that these formalized home invasions are fairly common in the local courts.
"The record gives rise to a genuine issue of material fact respecting whether the Raleigh County Commission had the required municipal policy of allowing officers to participate in home searches with family court judges of the type here challenged," wrote U.S. District Judge Frank Volk.
This was a year after the West Virginia courts had already censured Goldston, as noted at the time by civil rights attorney John Bryan, who represented Gibson.
Goldston's consequences weren't over, either. The judge's high-handed courtroom shenanigans caught the attention of the press, and then of the West Virginia state legislature. In January, lawmakers moved to impeach Goldston (a three-time president of the West Virginia Family Court Judicial Association who had been doing her worst on the bench since 1994, by the way) "for violation of the Constitutional civil rights of West Virginia citizens, violation of Constitutional separation of powers, incompetency, neglect of duty, and certain high crimes and misdemeanors."
The resolution was sponsored by 11 members of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Wisely, Goldston decided this was an appropriate moment to find a non-judicial pursuit to which to devote her energies.
She also may be taking some friends down with her.
"And as of today, I just discovered this breaking news: two additional West Virginia family court judges have also been charged for their part in conspiring to help Judge Goldston avoid disciplinary prosecution," attorney Bryan wrote February 1.
It seems that family court judges Deanna R. Rock and Glen R. Stotler went after the jobs of the people investigating misconduct by Goldston and another field trip-prone judge. Now they're in trouble, too.
That's a lot of judges in hot water, which is a rare occurrence. The doctrine of judicial immunity has long shielded judges from any real consequences for their misdeeds, so long as those actions are arguably within the scope of their jobs.
"As early as 1872, the Court recognized that it was 'a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, [should] be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself,'" according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Stump v. Sparkman (1978), a case in which an Indiana judge ordered the sterilization of a mildly retarded 15-year-old girl.
As is the tendency with privileges for government officials, the doctrine grew.
"The recent expansion of a judge-made exception to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1871, chief vehicle for redress of civil rights violations, has rendered state judges immune from suit even for the most bizarre, corrupt, or abusive of judicial acts," Robert Craig Waters argued in a 1987 piece for the Cato Journal. "In the last decade this 'doctrine of judicial immunity' has led to a disturbing series of legal precedents that effectively deny citizens any redress for injuries, embarrassment, and unjust imprisonment caused by errant judges."
But Goldston and friends pushed their luck so far that they finally found an outer boundary of their colleagues' indulgence.
"Judicial immunity is reserved for judicial actions, and searching someone's home is not a judicial act," the Institute for Justice points out with regard to the current case. "Just like police officers cannot act like judges, judges cannot act like police officers. The trial court correctly recognized this principle and denied Goldston judicial immunity for her actions."
Importantly, this case also defines the limits of the patience of the public and of lawmakers with judges' shenanigans. Judges can only cover for each other so far; something is bound to give when high-handed conduct outrages the people the judicial system allegedly serves.
That still leaves judges an awful lot of leeway. But, in the aftermath of the Goldston case, it appears that judges can't actually ransack our homes on their own say-so.