Clinton v. Jones
Annotate this Case
520 U.S. 681 (1997)
OCTOBER TERM, 1996
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
Respondent sued under 42 U. S. C. §§ 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. Mter 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.
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. 689-692.
2. Deferral of this litigation until petitioner's Presidency ends is not constitutionally required. Pp.692-710.
(a) Petitioner's principal submission-that in all but the most exceptional cases, the Constitution affords the President temporary immu-
nity 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. 692-697.
(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 coequal 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 the relatively 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 rea-