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Clinton v. Jones - Court Rejects Immunity Claim

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On appeal, President Clinton argued that the Constitution provides the president with a temporary immunity, during his term of office, from a civil lawsuit concerning events that occurred before he took office. President Clinton first argued that other Supreme Court cases granting immunity to executive officials applied to his case. In particular, President Clinton relied on the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Nixon v. Fitzgerald. In Fitzgerald, the Court held that a president is entitled to absolute immunity from any lawsuit seeking monetary damages which challenge his official acts. In other words, the president cannot be sued for conduct which relates to his duties as the president. However, the Court rejected President Clinton's argument that the Fitzgerald case provided immunity for actions not related to the president's official duties. The Court reasoned that Fitzgerald emphasized that presidential immunity was based on the functions of the presidency, and thus the Fitzgerald decision was inapplicable to a lawsuit challenging conduct which occurred before Clinton become president.

President Clinton also argued that he could not be subject to suit during the term of his presidency based on the doctrine of separation of powers. The separation of powers doctrine deals with the allocation of power among the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. President Clinton argued that separation of powers principles were implicated because subjecting him to a lawsuit during his presidency would impose burdens on the performance of his official duties. The Court noted that in other contexts, the judicial branch has reviewed the official actions of the president and other executive officials. Also, various presidents have been subpoenaed by federal courts or have provided videotaped testimony in court proceedings. The Court then reasoned:

If the Judiciary may severely burden the Executive Branch by reviewing the legality of the President's official conduct, and if it may direct appropriate process to the President himself, it must follow that the federal courts have the power to determine the legality of his unofficial conduct. The burden on the President's time and energy that is a mere by-product of such review surely cannot be considered as onerous as the direct burden imposed by judicial review and the occasional invalidation of his official actions. We therefore hold that the doctrine of separation of powers does not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the President until he leaves office.

The Supreme Court's decision was an important reminder of the principle that dates back to the adoption of the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century: in a democratic nation no person, including the president, is above the law. Thus, under the Supreme Court's decision, a sitting president may not avoid a civil lawsuit merely because he or she happens to be president. Rather, the president will enjoy immunity only where the actions relate to the official acts and duties of the presidency.

Clinton v. Jones - Should Civil Suits Against The President Be Stalled Until He Is Out Of Office? [next] [back] Clinton v. Jones - Further Readings

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