Justice Robert Benham, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ ALM) Justice Robert Benham, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

The former chief judge who presided over DeKalb County Recorder’s Court until the Georgia General Assembly abolished it, has absolute judicial immunity from civil litigation stemming from the defunct court’s troubled operations, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

“The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the doctrine of judicial immunity which shields judges from being sued and from being held civilly liable for damages based on federal law as a result of carrying out their judicial duties,” Justice Robert Benham said in the unanimous ruling.

And, he concluded, “A judge is not deprived of judicial immunity simply because she has allegedly acted mistakenly, maliciously or corruptly.”

Judge Nelly Withers, DeKalb County Recorders Court (Photo: Johnny Crawford/AJC Judge Nelly Withers, DeKalb County Recorders Court (Photo: Johnny Crawford/AJC)

The 11-page ruling reverses the Georgia Court of Appeals, which stripped former Chief Judge Nelly Withers and her recorder’s court administrator, Troy Thompson, of judicial and official immunity last year after they were sued by former defendant Bobby Schroeder. Schroeder had appeared in recorder’s court and paid a fine after being cited for a traffic violation.

Schroeder was arrested, jailed, and lost his job after court personnel erroneously notified the state Department of Driver Services that he missed his court appearance and never paid the ticket

In an unusual twist, two appellate court judges—Chief Judge Stephen Dillard and Judge Amanda Mercier—sat in for Justices Carol Hunstein and Nels Peterson when the high court heard oral arguments last year.

An appeals court panel that included Judges Christopher McFadden, Lisa Branch—now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit—and Charles Bethel, last year reversed a DeKalb County judge, who threw out civil rights claims after determining Withers and her court administrator were protected by judicial immunity.

McFadden’s opinion held that, while judicial immunity may shield judges from lawsuits stemming from actions they perform in their judicial capacity, it does not extend to administrative actions such as supervising court employees and overseeing the efficient operation of a court.

The appellate panel was also persuaded by Schroeder’s then-counsel, David Ates, who argued that, because Withers and Thompson were negligent in executing specific administrative duties, they were not immune from liability. Ates died shortly after the opinion was handed down, and Schroeder is now represented by Harlan Miller and Gerard Lupa.

Attorney Thomas Mitchell of Carothers & Mitchell in Buford, who defended Withers and Thompson before the Supreme Court, said his clients “are certainly pleased with the court’s ruling” because it places Georgia’s judicial immunity policies back in line with other states and courts across the country. He praised the court for saying in a footnote, “It is ultra-important in our democracy to preserve the doctrine of judicial immunity” so that judges can exercise “untrammeled determination without apprehension of subsequent damage suits.”

“It’s also a good result for all the judges and court administrators across the state of Georgia for whom the Court of Appeals decision had created some consternation,” he said.

Miller could not be reached for comment.

Withers’ court was the target of a string of lawsuits questioning its operations before it was abolished three years ago, including allegations it was illegally adjudicating cases over which it had no jurisdiction.

When the Legislature created four new state court judgeships in 2015 to handle traffic citations and ordinance violations that had been the purview of Recorders Court, Withers was not appointed to fill one of the posts.

The case attracted the attention—and alarm—of the state councils of superior court, state court and municipal court judges which all filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing Withers.

Benham’s ruling noted that a judge can only be stripped of the protections of judicial immunity by “committing an act that is non-judicial in nature” or taking judicial action without having jurisdiction to do so.

“In this case, there is no contention that [Withers and Thompson] were acting in the absence of all jurisdiction because, at the time, traffic offenses like the one at bar were adjudicated in the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court,” Benham said.

“Courts have held that the act of reporting the disposition of a matter pending before a court to an interested government agency is a function that is judicial in nature and inherent to the judicial process.”