William Jefferson Clinton, Petitioner v. Paula Corbin Jones

Image: Collection of the Supreme Court. The Rehnquist Court (1994-2005). Seated, from left to right: Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy. Standing, from left to right: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Steven G. Breyer.
How did Justice Stevens reach the conclusion that “the doctrine of separation of powers does not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the president until he leaves office”? If the president is not granted immunity from civil suits temporarily during his or her time in office, could the judiciary prevent the president from fulfilling the duty to faithfully enforce the law? What, according to Stevens, would be the consequence of recognizing presidential immunity from civil suits during time in office?
How does this decision relate to Chief Justice Taft’s notion of executive responsibility to the people as explained in Myers v. United States? How does Clinton’s request differ from Jackson’s argument against a censure by a coequal branch of government in his protest of the Senate censure?

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Paula Corbin Jones sued President Bill Clinton, alleging that while she was an Arkansas state employee she suffered several “abhorrent” sexual advances from then-governor Clinton. Jones claimed that her continued rejection of Clinton’s advances led to her punishment by state supervisors. Clinton filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the president must be entitled to absolute immunity from private lawsuits until the end of the presidential term. The District Court ultimately rejected his appeal for “absolute immunity” from any lawsuit while in office, a ruling that was later affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Clinton then appealed to the Supreme Court for a final determination on whether the president is entitled to immunity from private lawsuits while in office.

In the opinion for the unanimous Court, Justice John Paul Stevens (1920–2019) rejected the claim of absolute immunity for the president from private lawsuits during the term of office. While acknowledging the burdens of the executive office, Stevens argued that presidential immunity from normal lawsuits would imply that the Court does not have complete authority to hear all cases and controversies. Given that Article II grants the federal courts the authority to hear “all cases and controversies” without qualification, the Court cannot recognize such presidential immunity from civil suits. If it did, the Court would not be a separate and coequal branch of government, but one dependent on the needs of another branch.

—J. David Alvis and Joseph Postell

520 U.S. 681, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/520/681/.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

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. Despite the force of the arguments supporting the President’s submissions, we conclude that they must be rejected. . . .

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 certain public servants immunity from suits for money damages arising out of their official acts is inapplicable to unofficial conduct. In cases involving prosecutors, legislators, and judges we have repeatedly explained that the immunity serves the public interest in enabling such officials to perform their designated functions effectively without fear that a particular decision may give rise to personal liability. . . .

Petitioner’s strongest argument supporting his immunity claim is based on the text and structure of the Constitution. He does not contend that the occupant of the office of the president is “above the law,” in the sense that his conduct is entirely immune from judicial scrutiny. The President argues merely for a postponement of the judicial proceedings that will determine whether he violated any law. His argument 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 arrangement 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—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. . . .

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 coequal branches of our government. The Framers “built into the tripartite federal government . . . a self-executing safeguard against the encroachment or aggrandizement of one branch at the expense of the other.”1

Of course the lines between the powers of the three branches are not always neatly defined. 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. Whatever the outcome of this case, there is no possibility that the decision will curtail the scope of the official powers of the executive branch. The litigation of questions that 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.

Rather than arguing that the decision of the case will produce either an aggrandizement of judicial power or a narrowing of executive power, petitioner contends that—as a by-product of an otherwise traditional exercise of judicial power—burdens will be placed on the president that will hamper the performance of his official duties. . . . [The] petitioner errs by presuming that interactions between the judicial branch and the executive, even quite burdensome interactions, necessarily rise to the level of constitutionally forbidden impairment of the executive’s ability to perform its constitutionally mandated functions. “[O]ur. . .system imposes upon the branches a degree of overlapping responsibility, a duty of interdependence as well as independence the absence of which ‘would preclude the establishment of a Nation capable of governing itself effectively.’ ”2

. . .The fact that a federal court’s exercise of its traditional Article III jurisdiction may significantly burden the time and attention of the chief executive is not sufficient to establish a violation of the Constitution. . . .

First, we have long held that when the president takes official action, the Court has the authority to determine whether he has acted within the law. . . .

Second, it is also settled that the president is subject to judicial process in appropriate circumstances. . . .

In sum, “[i]t is settled law that the separation of powers doctrine does not bar every exercise of jurisdiction over the president of the United States.”3 If the judiciary may severely burden the executive branch by reviewing the legality of the president’s official conduct, and if it may direct appropriate process to the president himself, it must follow that the federal courts have power to determine the legality of his unofficial conduct. . . .

We therefore hold that the doctrine of separation of powers does not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the president until he leaves office. . . .

  1. 1. Justice Stevens’ note: Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S., at 122.30.
  2. 2. Justice Stevens’ note: Mistretta, 488 U.S., at 381 (quoting Buckley, 424 U.S., at 121).
  3. 3. Justice Stevens’ note: Fitzgerald, 457 U.S., at 753–754.
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