CAN THE PRESIDENT of the United States be sued for damages in a civil proceeding?
The answer depends on the nature of the president's alleged misconduct. In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the president has immunity from civil suits that arise from the performance of his official duties. "In exercising the functions of his office," the Court said, "the head of an Executive Department, keeping within the limits of his authority, should not be under an apprehension that the motives that control his official conduct may, at any time, become the subject of inquiry in a civil suit for damages."
The president's behavior off the job, however, is a different matter. In Clinton v. Jones (1997), the Supreme Court allowed former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones' sexual harassment and defamation suit against President Bill Clinton to proceed in federal court because the "rationale for affording certain public servants immunity from suits for money damages arising out of their official acts is inapplicable to unofficial conduct."
Which brings us to Donald Trump. In March, a judge allowed a defamation suit filed by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos to proceed against the show's former host. "It is settled," wrote New York Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Schecter, that even the president "has no immunity and is 'subject to the laws' for purely private acts."
The case originated in 2016, when Zervos claimed Trump had...