LOCATION: Arkansas State Capitol
DOCKET NO.: 95-1853
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
CITATION: 520 US 681 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1997
DECIDED: May 27, 1997
Gilbert K. Davis - Argued the cause for the respondent
Robert S. Bennett - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Walter E. Dellinger, III - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Facts of the case
Paula Corbin Jones sued President Bill Clinton. She alleged that while she was an Arkansas state employee, she suffered several "abhorrent" sexual advances from then Arkansas Governor Clinton. Jones claimed that her continued rejection of Clinton's advances ultimately resulted in punishment by her state supervisors. Following a District Court's grant of Clinton's request that all matters relating to the suit be suspended, pending a ruling on his prior request to have the suit dismissed on grounds of presidential immunity, Clinton sought to invoke his immunity to completely dismiss the Jones suit against him. While the District Judge denied Clinton's immunity request, the judge ordered the stay of any trial in the matter until after Clinton's Presidency. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal denial but reversed the trial deferment ruling since it would be a "functional equivalent" to an unlawful grant of temporary presidential immunity.
Is a serving President, for separation of powers reasons, entitled to absolute immunity from civil litigation arising out of events which transpired prior to his taking office?
Media for Clinton v. JonesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1997 in Clinton v. Jones
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 27, 1997 in Clinton v. Jones
The opinion of the Court in No. 95-1853, Clinton against Jones will be announced by Justice Stevens.
This case raises a constitutional and a prudential question concerning the Office of the President of the United States.
Respondent, a private citizen, seeks to recover damages from the current occupant of that office based on actions allegedly taken before his term began.
The President submits that in all but the most exceptional cases the Constitution requires federal courts to defer such litigation until his term ends and that, in any event, respect for the office warrants such a stay.
The petitioner, William Jefferson Clinton, was elected to the Presidency in 1992 and re-elected in 1996.
Respondent, Paula Corbin Jones, is a resident of California.
On May 6, 1994, invoking the diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts, she commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
In essence, here complaint alleges that on the afternoon of May 8, 1991, when she was employed by the Arkansas Industrial Commission.
Petitioner who was then Governor of the State of Arkansas engaged in tortious conduct for which he seeks to recover money damages.
In a response to the complaint, petitioner filed a motion seeking to postpone the proceeding until he is no longer president.
The District Judge ordered -- ordered a postponement of the trial that allowed discovery to go forward, both parties appealed.
A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the order postponing the trial until the President relieves office.
We granted the President's petition for certiorari and now affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Our opinion first discusses cases and materials from the historical record that support their recognition of an immunity from damages liability for actions taken by the President in his official capacity.
We conclude that those presidents do not apply to private conduct that deferred before becoming President.
We then turn to the President's strongest argument, a claim that is grounded in the character of the office that was created by Article II of the Constitution and relies on separation of powers principles that have structured our constitutional arrangements since the founding.
As a starting premise, petitioner contends that he occupies a unique office with powers and responsibilities so vast and important that the public interest demands that he devote his undivided time and attention to his public duties.
He submits that given the nature of the office that the doctrine of separation of powers places limits on the authority of the Federal Judiciary to interfere with the Executive Branch that would be transgressed by allowing this action to proceed.
We have no dispute with the initial premise of the argument.
Former presidents, from George Washington to George Bush, have consistently endorsed petitioner's characterization of the office.
It does not follow, however, that separation of powers principles would be violated by allowing this action to proceed.
The doctrine of separation of powers is concerned with the allocation of official power among the three co equal branches of our Government.
In this case, however, 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.
The litigation of questions that re -- relate entirely to the unofficial conduct of the individual who happens to be the President poses no perceptible risk of misallocation of either judicial power or executive power.
Nevertheless, petitioner contends that as a by-product of an otherwise traditional exercise of judicial power burdens will be place on the President that will hamper their performance of his official duties.
His concern is that this particular case, as well as the potential additional litigation that an affirmance of the Court of Appeals judgment may spawn, may impose an unacceptable burden on the President's time and energy, and thereby impair the effective performance of the office.
Petitioner's predictive judgment finds a little support in either history or the relatively narrow compass of the issues raised in this particular case.
In the entire history of the Republic, only three sitting Presidents have been subjected to suits for their private actions.
As for the case at hand, if properly managed by the District Court, it appears to us highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time.