FERRI V. ACKERMAN, 444 U. S. 193 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ferri v. Ackerman, 444 U.S. 193 (1979)

Ferri v. Ackerman

No. 78-5981

Argued October 2, 1979

Decided December 4, 1979

444 U.S. 193


A Federal District Court, pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, appointed respondent attorney to represent petitioner, an indigent defendant, in a federal criminal trial. After petitioner was convicted and pending his unsuccessful appeal, he sued respondent in a Pennsylvania state court for alleged malpractice in respondent's conduct of the federal criminal trial. The trial court dismissed the complaint on the ground that respondent was immune from liability. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed, resting its decision on federal law and holding that the justification for judicial immunity embraced in the federal system and encompassing prosecutors and grand jurors, as well as judges, was equally applicable to defense counsel as participants in judicial proceedings.

Held: An attorney appointed by a federal judge to represent an indigent defendant in a federal criminal trial is not, as a matter of federal law, entitled to absolute immunity in a state malpractice suit brought against him by his former client. Pp. 444 U. S. 199-205.

(a) There is nothing in the language, the legislative history, or the basic purpose of the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 in providing compensation for court-appointed attorneys to support the conclusion that Pennsylvania must accept respondent's claim of immunity from liability for a state tort. The fact that respondent was compensated from federal funds is not a sufficient basis for inferring that Congress intended to grant him immunity from malpractice suits. Pp. 444 U. S. 199-201.

(b) The primary rationale for granting immunity to judges, prosecutors, and other public officials -- namely, the societal interest in providing such officials with the maximum ability to deal fearlessly and impartially with the public at large -- does not apply to court-appointed defense counsel sued for malpractice by his own client. In contrast to other officers of the court, the primary office performed by appointed counsel parallels the office of privately retained counsel. Although appointed counsel serves pursuant to statutory authorization and in furtherance of the federal interest in insuring effective representation of criminal defendants, his duty is not to the public at large, except in that general way. His principal responsibility is to serve the undivided interests of his client, and, indeed, an indispensable element

Page 444 U. S. 194

of the effective performance of his responsibilities is the ability to act independently of the Government and to oppose it in adversary litigation. Pp. 444 U. S. 202-204.

483 Pa. 90, 394 A.2d 553, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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