A Board Does Not a Bench Make: Denying Quasi-Judicial Immunity to Parole Board Members in Section 1983 Damages Actions

This Note argues that neither the majority nor the minority approach is realistic. A thorough examination of the parole process and section 1983 litigation will show that a third approach is more appropriate – that parole board members are entitled only to qualified immunity for all actions taken within the scope of their official duties. Part I argues that parole board members should not enjoy absolute, quasi-judicial immunity because the parole board decisionmaking process is not “functionally comparable” to judicial decisionmaking. The differences in procedure, political accountability, training, and background lead to two very different systems. Part II shows that adopting qualified immunity will also improve the parole decisionmaking process by fostering disincentives for unconstitutional conduct. Parole board members themselves would be more careful to respect well-established constitutional rights, and state government would be more likely to implement better selection, training, and risk-management procedures. Finally, Part III illustrates that limiting the immunity of parole board members is necessary to provide both monetary and symbolic relief to victims of unconstitutional conduct. Other forms of relief, such as habeas corpus, are inadequate to protect prisoners and parolees, and completely unavailable to victims. With no effective forms of relief, section 1983 rings hollow. But if parole board members are given only qualified immunity from suit, then section 1983 will serve the cause for which it was enacted – to compensate those whose constitutional rights have been violated. The road to this vindication of section 1983 begins with an exploration of the differences between parole boards and courts and the great differences between the players themselves: parole board members and judges.