CLINTON v. JONES
Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
No. 95-1853. Argued January 13, 1997 -- Decided May 27, 1997
sued under 42 U.S.C. Sects. 1983 and 1985 and Arkansas law to recover damages
from petitioner, the current President of the United States, alleging,
inter alia, that while he was Governor of Arkansas, petitioner made "abhorrent"
sexual advances to her, and that her rejection of those advances led to
punishment by her supervisors in the state job she held at the time. Petitioner
promptly advised the Federal District Court that he would file a motion
to dismiss on Presidential immunity grounds, and requested that all other
pleadings and motions be deferred until the immunity issue was resolved.
After the court granted that request, petitioner filed a motion to dismiss
without prejudice and to toll any applicable statutes of limitation during
his Presidency. The District Judge denied dismissal on immunity grounds
and ruled that discovery could go forward, but ordered any trial stayed
until petitioner's Presidency ended. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal
denial, but reversed the trial postponement as the "functional equivalent"
of a grant of temporary immunity to which petitioner was not constitutionally
entitled. The court explained that the President, like other officials,
is subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens, that no case had
been found in which an official was granted immunity from suit for his
unofficial acts, and that the rationale for official immunity is inapposite
where only personal, private conduct by a President is at issue. The court
also rejected the argument that, unless immunity is available, the threat
of judicial interference with the Executive Branch would violate separation
1. This Court need not address two important constitutional issues not
encompassed within the questions presented by the certiorari petition:
(1) whether a claim comparable to petitioner's assertion of immunity might
succeed in a state tribunal, and (2) whether a court may compel the President's
attendance at any specific time or place. Pp. 7-9.
2. Deferral of this litigation until petitioner's Presidency ends is
not constitutionally required. Pp. 7-28.
(a) Petitioner's principal submission--that in all but the most exceptional
cases, the Constitution affords the President temporary immunity from civil
damages litigation arising out of events that occurred before he took office--cannot
be sustained on the basis of precedent. The principal rationale for affording
Presidents immunity from damages actions based on their official acts--i.e.,
to enable them to perform their designated functions effectively without
fear that a particular decision may give rise to personal liability, see,
e.g., Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731, 749, 752, and n. 32--provides
no support for an immunity for unofficial conduct. Moreover, immunities
for acts clearly within official capacity are grounded in the nature of
the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it.
Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229. The Court is also unpersuaded by
petitioner's historical evidence, which sheds little light on the question
at issue, and is largely canceled by conflicting evidence that is itself
consistent with both the doctrine of presidential immunity as set forth
in Fitzgerald, and rejection of the immunity claim in this case. Pp. 9-15.
(b) The separation of powers doctrine does not require federal courts
to stay all private actions against the President until he leaves office.
Even accepting the unique importance of the Presidency in the constitutional
scheme, it does not follow that that doctrine would be violated by allowing
this action to proceed. The doctrine provides a self executing safeguard
against the encroachment or aggrandizement of one of the three co equal
branches of Government at the expense of another. Buckley v. Valeo, 424
U.S. 1, 122. But in this case there is no suggestion that the Federal Judiciary
is being asked to perform any function that might in some way be described
as "executive." Respondent is merely asking the courts to exercise
their core Article III jurisdiction to decide cases and controversies,
and, whatever the outcome, there is no possibility that the decision here
will curtail the scope of the Executive Branch's official powers. The Court
rejects petitioner's contention that this case--as well as the potential
additional litigation that an affirmance of the Eighth Circuit's judgment
might spawn--may place unacceptable burdens on the President that will
hamper the performance of his official duties. That assertion finds little
support either in history, as evidenced by the paucity of suits against
sitting Presidents for their private actions, or in therelatively narrow
compass of the issues raised in this particular case. Of greater significance,
it is settled that the Judiciary may severely burden the Executive Branch
by reviewing the legality of the President's official conduct, see e.g.,
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, and may direct
appropriate process to the President himself, see e.g., United States v.
Nixon, 418 U.S. 683. It must follow that the federal courts have power
to determine the legality of the President's unofficial conduct. The reasons
for rejecting a categorical rule requiring federal courts to stay private
actions during the President's term apply as well to a rule that would,
in petitioner's words, require a stay "in all but the most exceptional
cases." Pp. 15-24.
(c) Contrary to the Eighth Circuit's ruling, the District Court's stay
order was not the "functional equivalent" of an unconstitutional
grant of temporary immunity. Rather, the District Court has broad discretion
to stay proceedings as an incident to its power to control its own docket.
See, e.g., Landis v. North American Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254. Moreover, the
potential burdens on the President posed by this litigation are appropriate
matters for that court to evaluate in its management of the case, and the
high respect owed the Presidency is a matter that should inform the conduct
of the entire proceeding. Nevertheless, the District Court's stay decision
was an abuse of discretion because it took no account of the importance
of respondent's interest in bringing the case to trial, and because it
was premature in that there was nothing in the record to enable a judge
to assess whether postponement of trial after the completion of discovery
would be warranted. Pp. 25-27.
(d) The Court is not persuaded of the seriousness of the alleged risks
that this decision will generate a large volume of politically motivated
harassing and frivolous litigation and that national security concerns
might prevent the President from explaining a legitimate need for a continuance,
and has confidence in the ability of federal judges to deal with both concerns.
If Congress deems it appropriate to afford the President stronger protection,
it may respond with legislation. Pp. 27-28.
72 F.3d 1354, affirmed.
Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist,
C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ.,
joined. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
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