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Nixon v. Fitzgerald

The Court's Decision

On 24 June 1982 the Supreme Court handed down its decision. By a 5-4 decision, the Court sided with Nixon, ruling that a president is immune from all civil suits deriving from his actions as president. Justice Powell wrote the majority opinion, in which he was joined by Chief Justice Burger, Justice Rehnquist, Justice Stevens, and Justice O'Connor.

The majority rested its decision not on the text of the Constitution but on "the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers" and U.S. history. It afforded the president a unique status that distinguishes him from all other executive officials. The president must often deal with matters that are highly sensitive and sure to arouse passions among citizens. It is for just this reason, Justice Powell contended, that he must be shielded from lawsuits:

Because of the singular importance of the President's duties, diversion of his energies by concern with private lawsuits would raise unique risks to the effective functioning of government.

In keeping with the theme of the "special" nature of the office of the presidency, Powell argued that the prominence of the president's office made him an unusually easy target for lawsuits:

In view of the visibility of his office and the effect of his actions on countless people, the President would be an easily identifiable target for suits for civil damages. Cognizance of this personal vulnerability frequently could distract a President from his public duties, to the detriment not only of the President and his office but also the Nation that the Presidency was designed to serve.

Finally, the majority rejected the argument that a president's immunity should derive from the functions he or she performs and not from the office itself. If this rule were adopted, the majority argued, every action a president takes would be subject to allegations that it was unlawful. As a result, "absolute immunity" would have no practical meaning.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Nixon v. Fitzgerald - Significance, The Lower Court Decisions, The Court's Decision, The President Above The Law?