Clinton v. Jones 520 U.S. 681 (1997)

Author:Michael J. Gerhardt

Page 433

Clinton v. Jones is one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions on PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY. The case involved the issue of whether a sitting President was immune to civil actions based on his conduct before he took office. Whereas the Court had held 5?4 in NIXON V. FITZGERALD (1982) that a President was entitled to absolute immunity from civil lawsuits arising from the discharge of his official duties, a unanimous Court held in Clinton v. Jones that a President is not entitled to immunity from lawsuits based on his unofficial actions.

The plaintiff in Clinton v. Jones, Paula Corbin Jones, alleged that President WILLIAM J. CLINTON sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas in 1991. Although Clinton denied any wrongdoing, his lawyers argued the lawsuit should be delayed until Clinton left office because burdening a President with litigation would allow judges or legal proceedings to interfere unduly with the performance of his official duties. In an opinion for eight Justices, Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS explained this kind of burden would never impair the "Executive's ability to perform its constitutionally mandated functions." The Court maintained that denying the President's immunity claim would not produce horrible consequences. It noted that all prior civil suits based on pre-presidential conduct?brought against THEODORE ROOSEVELT, HARRY S. TRUMAN, and JOHN F. KENNEDY?had been quickly dismissed or settled.

The Court explained that two principles supported its conclusion. The first, employed in YOUNGSTOWN SHEET & TUBE CO. V. SAWYER (1952) and MARBURY V. MADISON (1803), was "that when the President takes official action, the Court has the authority to determine whether he has acted within the law." The second principle, applied in UNITED STATES V. NIXON (1973) and United States v. Burr (1807), was that "the President is subject to judicial process in appropriate circumstances." Indeed, sitting Presidents, including JAMES MONROE, RICHARD M. NIXON, and even Clinton himself, "have responded to court orders to provide testimony and other information with sufficient frequency that such interactions between the Judicial and Executive Branches" have become commonplace.

The Court remarked that a trial court could accommodate a President's scheduling needs, but refused to recognize a constitutional immunity that required such accommodations. In a separate concurrence, Justice STEPHEN G. BREYER recognized a constitutional...

To continue reading