Clinton v. Jones,
520 U.S. 681 (1997)

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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. 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.


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-

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

The Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial requires a civil lawsuit against a current President to proceed if it is unrelated to behavior that occurred during time in office, since executive immunity does not apply.


According to former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, U.S. President Bill Clinton had propositioned her during his tenure as Governor of Arkansas. She also alleged that Arkansas Police Officer Danny Ferguson had taken her to Clinton's hotel room and told Clinton that Jones had offered to be his mistress. (Apparently, another state employee named David Brock had started a rumor that someone working for the Arkansas government named Paula had said this.)

When Jones brought her sexual harassment claim in federal district court, the judge postponed the trial until after Clinton had left the Presidency under the theory that the President is immune from civil suit during his or her time in office. The discovery procedure prior to trial was allowed to proceed so that the trial could unfold as soon as Clinton had left office.

Procedural History

US District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - 869 F.Supp. 690 (E.D. Ark. 1994)

Motion to defer granted; motion for immunity denied. While the President is not categorically immune from suit, a trial in which he is the defendant should be postponed until he leaves office.

US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit - 72 F.3d 1354 (8th Cir. 1996)

Motion to defer reversed. A sitting President is subject to the laws of the United States, just like any other person in society.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Writing for a unanimous Court, Stevens agreed with the Eighth Circuit that private civil lawsuits can proceed against a sitting President. The separation of powers doctrine does not require deferring the trial until after the President leaves office, and it would not be so significant a distraction that it would impede the operation of the executive branch.


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)

Breyer wrote separately to point out that the outcome might be different if there were concrete evidence showing that defending a civil lawsuit would interfere with the President's ability to perform his duties under the Constitution.

Case Commentary

The court's decision that this suit would not unduly burden or distract the President from his executive duties may seem questionable in retrospect, considering what arose from it. When the case was eventually heard in federal district court, Clinton was granted summary judgment, but the testimony of Monica Lewinsky led to the revelation of the tapes that gave rise to the Lewinsky scandal and ultimately criminal charges against Clinton as well as an impeachment proceeding. While Clinton likely committed perjury and obstruction of justice during the civil case brought by Jones, he was not prosecuted on these grounds in favor of alternative sanctions, such as civil contempt penalties and the suspension of his bar license.

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