Citing judicial immunity, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a multimillion-dollar civil rights lawsuit against a Maryland circuit court judge who ordered a deputy sheriff to use a Taser-like electrical shock to quiet a criminal defendant.
The 4th Circuit noted that former Charles County Circuit Judge Robert Nalley was convicted of a federal civil rights offense and excused from judicial service after ordering that the Stun-Cuff—a product that allows police to send 80,000 volts of electricity racing through an inmate’s body—on one of Delvon King’s ankles be activated for not obeying Nalley’s demand that he be quiet during a July 2014 pretrial hearing.
But the 4th Circuit said Nalley’s inexcusable behavior was nevertheless immune from King’s lawsuit because the circuit court had jurisdiction over the criminal trial and the judge’s actions were within his “judicial capacity” of keeping order.
In its unsigned opinion, the three-judge panel cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that a judge’s broad immunity from suit applies even when having allegedly acted “maliciously and corruptly.”
Judicial immunity is “for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences,” the 4th Circuit added, quoting from an earlier Supreme Court ruling.
The panel, in its unpublished decision, affirmed U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang’s dismissal last September of King’s $5 million lawsuit alleging Nalley’s recourse to excessive force denied him his right to due process of law.
“We agree with the district court that, while Judge Nalley’s actions were outrageous and unlawful, the judge was performing the judicial act of maintaining order in the courtroom when he directed the activation of the stun-cuff,” the 4th Circuit stated. “He is therefore entitled to judicial immunity, and we affirm for the reasons stated by the district court.”
Chief Judge Roger Gregory and Judges James Wynn and Dennis Shedd were on the 4th Circuit panel.
King’s attorney, Steven Silverman, said that he and his client are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court “because of the fundamental unfairness of the application of judicial immunity in this unique circumstance.
“I understand the importance of judicial immunity but at some point there needs to be a line drawn,” Silverman said. “In this case, Judge Nalley was convicted of [violating] a federal criminal statute for intentionally and maliciously electrocuting Mr. King.”
The Maryland Attorney General’s office, which represented Nalley and pressed the judicial immunity defense, did not immediately return telephone and email messages seeking comment on the decision.
King was found guilty by the circuit court jury but his case was later resolved with a probation before judgment agreement after a public defender filed a motion for a new trial based on Nalley’s actions.
Nalley pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation in 2016 stemming from the electrocution, which resulted in King’s falling to the ground and screaming. He was sentenced to one year of probation, ordered to attend anger-management classes and pay a $5,000 fine. He acknowledged as part of the plea deal that “the use of the stun-cuff was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances.”
In September 2014, Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals, took the rare step of barring Nalley from hearing cases as a retired judge. Nalley had retired a year earlier upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 after sitting on the circuit court bench since 1988.
Heather Cobun, trial courts reporter for The Daily Record in Baltimore, contributed to this story.