After an unsuccessful Department of Agriculture proceeding to revoke or suspend the registration of respondent's commodity futures commission company, respondent filed an action for damages in District Court against petitioner officials (including the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, the Judicial Officer, the Chief Hearing Examiner who had recommended sustaining the administrative complaint, and the Department attorney who had prosecuted the enforcement proceeding), alleging, inter alia, that, by instituting unauthorized proceedings against him, they had violated various of his constitutional rights. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the individual defendants, as federal officials, were entitled to absolute immunity for all discretionary acts within the scope of their authority. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the defendants were entitled only to the qualified immunity available to their counterparts in state government.
In a 4-to-5 opinion, the Court began by noting that absent exceptional circumstances federal executive officials are only entitled to qualified immunity, since such officials must abide by constitutional and statutory scope-of-power limitations. Federal officials who perform adjudicatory, or other similar prosecutorial functions, cannot, however, be held liable for mere "good faith" judgment errors. The Court reasoned that the risk of making unconstitutional determinations is outweighed by the need to preserve independent judgement, through grants of absolute immunity to judges and other similarly situated decision makers. The Court concluded that the similarity between the type of decision-making required of federal prosecutors and other administrative agents is sufficiently strong to warrant an extension of absolute immunity to the latter for decisions made in the course of their official conduct.
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