Court: Arkansas judge immune from suit over excessive fines

February 10, 2022 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a state judge is immune from a lawsuit by a civil rights group that accused him of violating the constitutional rights of poor defendants by imposing excessive fines and jail time when they can’t pay.

Justices upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit filed in 2018 against White County District Judge Mark Derrick on behalf of six residents. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the suit accusing Derrick of imposing substantial fines against people convicted of minor infractions without any inquiry about their ability to pay.

In its ruling, the court said Derrick had judicial immunity because he acted within his capacity as a judge. Justices said in their ruling that “absolute judicial immunity is a defense that appellants cannot surmount.”

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The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said it was disappointed with the court’s ruling and was considering its next steps.

The lawsuit was similar to other complaints the group has filed in Arkansas and elsewhere focusing on the problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford.

“Whatever next steps that we take, we will continue to fight these same practices, which are practices that criminalize poverty and disproportionately affect Black and brown people,” Arthur Ago, director of the Criminal Justice Project for the group, said.

One justice, in a concurring opinion, said the ruling wasn’t an endorsement of practices in Derrick’s court and called the claims against him “disturbing” if true.

“I encourage our court to actively seek methods to ensure that our district courts administer justice with the professionalism that all people deserve,” Justice Courtney Rae Hudson’s opinion said. “Perhaps, for instance, livestreaming proceedings could add a measure of accountability.”