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Home > Child Custody & Divorce > Item

Clinton v. Jones

Supreme Court case No. 95-1853.
Argued January 13, 1997 -- Decided May 27, 1997


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AN E-BULLETIN LEGAL INFORMATION INSTITUTE -- CORNELL LAW SCHOOL lii@lii.law.cornell.edu

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The following decisions have just arrived via the LII's direct Project HERMES feed from the Supreme Court.

These are not the decisions themselves nor excerpts from them, but summaries (syllabi) prepared by the Court's Reporter of Decisions. Instructions for accessing the full text of any of these decisions are provided at the end of this bulletin.





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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

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Respondent 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 of powers.

Held:

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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