Legal Memorandum LG04

U.S. SUPREME COURT GUARANTEES
IMMUNITY FOR LOCAL LEGISLATORS

The United States Supreme Court held in Bogan et al. v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44, 118 S.Ct. 966, 140 L.Ed.2d 79 (1998) that local legislators (i.e. members of a city council and the city mayor) have absolute immunity from personal liability under 42 U.S.C. §1983 ("§1983" actions) when acting in their legislative capacity. Section 1983 provides civil remedies for deprivations of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" caused by persons acting "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia...."

Scott-Harris, a former employee of the City of Fall River, Massachusetts, brought a §1983 action against the City, the city mayor and the city council vice president, claiming that adoption of the city budget which eliminated the department for which she was the sole employee was driven by improper racial motives and was made in retaliation against her previous attempt to discipline another (politically-backed) employee. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals denied the local officials’ claims of absolute immunity. Both courts found that the conduct in question was not "legislative" because it was targeted to the particular individual and therefore did not deserve absolute immunity.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that (1) "[l]ocal legislators are entitled to absolute immunity from §1983 liability for their legislative activities;" and (2) the budgetary processes through which Scott-Harris’ position was eliminated were "quintessentially legislative" actions. In relation to the first holding, the Supreme Court cited an early New York Court of Appeals case for the proposition that local legislative members were, under common law, immune from suit for their legislative actions. Adoption of §1983 did not abrogate that long-standing policy.

As to the second holding, the court found that "[w]hether an act is legislative turns on the nature of the act, rather than on the motive or intent of the official performing it." Hence, despite evidence of improper intent and motive, individual legislators will be immune from personal liability for legislative actions. Here, the affected employee’s position was one of 135 positions eliminated through the city budgetary process in anticipation of state aid reductions. In addition to the budget, the city council enacted an ordinance carrying out the budgetary direction for elimination of the city department in question. Both voting for the budget and ordinance by a council member and introduction of a budget and signing into law of an ordinance by the mayor, an executive official, were considered by the court to be "legislative functions."

The Court declined to "look beyond petitioners’ formal actions to consider whether the ordinance was legislative in substance" because it "bore all the hallmarks of traditional legislation." Because making a budget is so clearly a traditional legislative activity, the Court did not have to "determine whether the formally legislative character of petitioners’ [i.e. the local officials’] actions is alone sufficient to entitle petitioners to legislative immunity." This last admonition intimates that, in some other context, both the character of the action and its underlying purpose could be open to examination before absolute legislative immunity is accorded.