Van de Kamp v. Goldstein: Two Down, One To Go?


Immunities from suit bother me, and not just because I sue people for a living. Immunities for public officials who violate the law seem inconsistent with a republican form of government. We the people created a government composed of folks who are immune from the consequences of their error? That sounds awfully regal to me.

The Supreme Court's decision in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, announced this week, isn't regal in tone. But it is troubling nonetheless.

Thomas Goldstein was convicted of murder in 1980 by a California jury. Many years later, he learned that a key witness against him was a man with a troubled past who had previously testified for the state and been given favorable treatment by prosecutors. This sort of information must be shared with defense lawyers as a matter of law.

Goldstein successfully persuaded federal judges that his rights had been violated by the prosecution's failure to turn over impeachment material. One federal panel called the failure to turn materials over a result of a failure "to adequately [sic] train and supervise deputy district attorneys" on the subject. Goldstein's conviction was vacated and the state elected not to retry him -- he had served 24 years as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. Goldstein then sued under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which permits a claim for money damages when a state official violates a person's rights.

The law regarding prosecutorial immunity relies on a functional test: Prosecutors are immune when performing core prosecutorial functions, such as deciding whether to prosecute or putting on evidence. The courts have permitted suits to go forward when prosecutorials shed their role as advocates and become complaining witnesses. In the Goldstein case, the plaintiff argued that administrative failures by a prosecutor's office involving the failure to train prosecutors fell outside the range of immune acts.

The Goldstein court parsed a prosecutor's job into three separate functions: the so-called judicial function, in which the prosecutor serves as an advocate; an administrative function, involving the setting of office priorities and training; and, the investigative function, in which a prosecutor serves as a complaining witness.

Prior cases, Imbler v. Pachtman,424 U.S. 409 (1976) and, Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118 (1997), made clear that prosecutors are immune when acting in their judicial or advocacy function. Goldstein now makes clear that prosecutors are immune for administrative functions as well. I predict that within the next term or two the court will tee up a case involving immunity for prosecutors in their investigative function as well.

The Goldstein court weighs in on the side of worrying the prosecutors concerned about unfounded litigation might pull punches if they are required to keep a wary eye on civil liability. But what about the Goldstein's of the world, men whose rights are violated because prosecutors needn't worry about the consequences of their conduct? Powerful policy arguments support the claim that imposing liability might yield better prosecutors and a system less likely to prey upon the rights of the accused. What would be wrong with a counterweight in the form of civil liability to overcriminalization?

Goldstein worries about liability for acts "directly connected with the conduct of a trial." It would not take very creative reasoning to extend immunity to investigative behavior as well. After all, what is a trial without facts?

Goldstein is a disappointing but unsurprising decision. The sovereign once again says to the people: hands off, what pleases me has the force of law.

Comments: (1)

  • It is frightening to realize that prosecutors have...
    It is frightening to realize that prosecutors have the right to do whatever they please and there is no accountability. Who among us will be the next Goldstein?
    Posted on September 8, 2009 at 2:17 pm by Anonymous

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