Nixon v. Fitzgerald
457 U.S. 731 (1982)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982)

Nixon v. Fitzgerald

No. 79-1738

Argued November 30, 1981

Decided June 24, 1982

457 U.S. 731

Syllabus

During the waning months of the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, respondent, a management analyst with the Department of the Air Force, testified before a congressional Subcommittee about cost overruns and unexpected technical difficulties concerning the development of a particular airplane. In January, 1970, during the Presidency of petitioner Richard M. Nixon, respondent was dismissed from his job during a departmental reorganization and reduction in force, in which his job was eliminated. Respondent complained to the Civil Service Commission, alleging that his separation represented unlawful retaliation for his congressional testimony. The Commission rejected this claim, but concluded that respondent's dismissal offended applicable regulations because it was motivated by "reasons purely personal to" respondent. Respondent thereafter filed suit for damages in Federal District Court against various Defense Department officials and White House aides allegedly responsible for his dismissal. An amended complaint later named petitioner as a defendant. After earlier judicial rulings and extensive pretrial discovery, only three defendants were involved: petitioner and two White House aides (petitioners in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, post, p. 457 U. S. 800). Denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the court held that respondent had stated triable causes of action under two federal statutes and the First Amendment, and that petitioner was not entitled to claim absolute Presidential immunity. Petitioner took a collateral appeal of the immunity decision to the Court of Appeals, which dismissed summarily.

Held:

1. This Court has jurisdiction to determine the immunity question. Pp. 457 U. S. 741-744.

(a) The case was "in" the Court of Appeals for purposes of 28 U.S.C. 1254, which authorizes this Court's review of "[c]ases in" the courts of appeals. The Court of Appeals here dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. However, petitioner's appeal to the Court of Appeals falls within the "collateral order" doctrine of Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U. S. 541, as raising a "serious and unsettled

Page 457 U. S. 732

question" of law. Although the Court of Appeals had previously ruled in another case that the President was not entitled to absolute immunity, this Court had never so held. Pp. 457 U. S. 741-743.

(b) Nor was the controversy mooted by an agreement to liquidate damages entered into between the parties after the petition for certiorari was filed and respondent had entered his opposition. Under the terms of the agreement, petitioner paid respondent $142,000; respondent agreed to accept liquidated damages of $28,000 if this Court ruled that petitioner was not entitled to absolute immunity; and no further payments would be made if the decision upheld petitioner's immunity claim. The limited agreement left both parties with a considerable financial stake in the resolution of the question presented in this Court. Cf. Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U. S. 363. Pp. 457 U. S. 743-744.

2. Petitioner, as a former President of the United States, is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts. Pp. 457 U. S. 744-758.

(a) Although there is no blanket recognition of absolute immunity for all federal executive officials from liability for civil damages resulting from constitutional violations, certain officials -- such as judges and prosecutors -- because of the special nature of their responsibilities, require absolute exemption from liability. Cf. Butz v. Economou, 438 U. S. 478. Determination of the immunity of particular officials is guided by the Constitution, federal statutes, history, and public policy. Pp. 457 U. S. 744-748.

(b) The President's absolute immunity is a functionally mandated incident of his unique office, rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by the Nation's history. 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. While the separation of powers doctrine does not bar every exercise of jurisdiction over the President, a court, before exercising jurisdiction, must balance the constitutional weight of the interest to be served against the dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch. The exercise of jurisdiction is not warranted in the case of merely private suits for damages based on a President's official acts. Pp. 457 U. S. 748-754.

(c) The President's absolute immunity extends to all acts within the "outer perimeter" of his duties of office. Pp. 457 U. S. 755-757.

(d) A rule of absolute immunity for the President does not leave the Nation without sufficient protection against his misconduct. There remains the constitutional remedy of impeachment, as well as the deterrent effects of constant scrutiny by the press and vigilant oversight by Congress. Other incentives to avoid misconduct may include a desire to

Page 457 U. S. 733

earn reelection, the need to maintain prestige as an element of Presidential influence, and a President's traditional concern for his historical stature. Pp. 457 U. S. 757-758.

Reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion,post, p. 457 U. S. 758. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 457 U. S. 764. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 457 U. S. 797.

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Primary Holding

The President has absolute immunity from liability for civil damages arising from any official action taken while in office.

Facts

Fitzgerald testified to Congress that the Air Force was experiencing severe cost overruns and technical difficulties regarding the development of a transport plane. He worked for the Air Force as a management analyst but was fired during a departmental reorganization and reduction in force under the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. He brought a claim for damages, with Nixon named as a defendant, arguing that he had been fired and his position removed as retaliation for testifying before Congress. Nixon raised the defense of absolute presidential immunity, which was rejected by the trial court but accepted by the appellate court, which dismissed the case.

Opinions

Majority

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

The separation of powers principle gives rise to absolute immunity, which is an important matter of public policy. The President has greater protections than governors and other officials, who have qualified immunity, since he holds a unique position in the structure of government and has uniquely important duties. The distractions caused by defending a civil lawsuit would improperly distract the President from fulfilling his executive function, which would undermine the government more broadly. There is no cause for concern that the President will be above the law, since impeachment and other processes impose checks on his powers.

Concurrence

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Qualified rather than absolute immunity is appropriate, or otherwise the President will be above the law. Sovereign immunity should not be accorded to the President merely on the basis of public policy, if the Constitution or previous decisions do not support reaching this conclusion.

Concurrence

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Dissent

  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall

Case Commentary

As long as there are remedies such as impeachment and intervention by Congress, the President can be held sufficiently accountable for actions in office that absolute immunity is reasonable. He must be permitted to carry out his official duties without being concerned about liability for civil damages.

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