Summary of Clinton v. Jones
520 U.S. 681 (1997)
Procedural Posture: Paula Corbin Jones filed suit in federal district court in Arkansas against William Jefferson Clinton and Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson over an incident that was alleged to have occurred on May 8, 1991. Clinton filed motions asking the district court to dismiss the case on grounds of presidential immunity and prohibit Jones from refiling the suit until after the end of his presidency. The district court rejected the presidential immunity argument but allowed that no trial would take place until Clinton was no longer president. Both Clinton and Jones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
Disposition: In a 9-0 decision, the court held in favor of Jones, affirming the district court’s right to decide this case.
Facts: Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1992 and reelected in 1996. Prior to the presidency, Clinton held the office of governor of Arkansas. In 1994, Paula Corbin Jones filed suit in federal district court in Arkansas against Clinton and Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson over an incident that was alleged to have occurred at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, in Little Rock. Jones, then an employee of the state, was working at the registration desk of a conference in which Governor Clinton delivered a speech. Jones alleges Trooper Ferguson told her that Governor Clinton wanted to see her in his room, and Ferguson escorted her to the room. Once in the room, Clinton begins to make unwanted sexual advances towards Jones. Clinton denies the allegations and claims that the lawsuit is politically motivated.
Relevant Provision of Constitution: Article II, specifically separation of power principles.
Question: Whether the constitution protects a sitting president from a lawsuit that seeks damages from an unofficial act that occurred before becoming president?
Holding: The Federal Constitution did not require that federal courts, in all but the most exceptional cases, defer civil damages litigation against the President until the President’s term ended when such litigation was based on actions allegedly taken before the President’s term began, in part because (a) a temporary immunity from suit for unofficial acts, grounded purely in the identity of the President’s office, was unsupported by precedent of the Supreme Court, and (b) the doctrine of separation of powers did not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the President until the President left office; and (2) it was an abuse of discretion for the District Court, which had jurisdiction to decide the case at hand, to defer the trial until the President left office, in part because (a) such a lengthy and categorical stay took no account of the individual’s interest in bringing the case to trial, (b) the decision to postpone the trial was premature, and (c) no impingement upon the President’s conduct of his office had been shown.
Reasoning: (Stevens) There is no support for immunity for unofficial conduct. The doctrine of separation of powers does not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the president until he leaves office. The doctrine of separation of powers is concerned with the allocation of official power among the three co-equal branches of government.
Concurrence: (Breyer) The constitution does not automatically grant the president immunity from civil lawsuits based upon his private conduct. The president cannot simply rest upon the claim that a private civil lawsuit for damages will interfere with the constitutionally assigned duties of the executive branch… without detailing any specific responsibilities or explaining how or degrees.