Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681; 117 S. Ct. 1636; 137 L. Ed. 2d 945 (1997)
Facts—Paula Corbin Jones brought suit against President Bill Clinton for “‘abhorrent’ sexual advances” that he allegedly made to her in a motel when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. The U.S. District Court judge permitted the process of discovery to proceed in the case but ruled that any trial would have to be postponed until after Clinton left office. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case could proceed.
Question—While in office, does a U.S. president have immunity from civil actions involving behavior prior to becoming president?
Reasons—J. Stevens (9–0). In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982) the Court recognized absolute presidential immunity for civil damages arising from his official duties while in office. Suits against presidents for civil actions arising prior to their assumption of the presidency have been rare. Immunity for liability from official actions is designed to keep the president from being overly cautious in fulfilling his duties. The presidency was not designed, however, to be above the laws but to be amenable to them. The office of the president is unique, but the president remains subject to oversight by the other two branches. It seems unlikely that this suit would “occupy any substantial amount of the petitioner’s time.” The president’s request for immunity from a suit while he is in office does not take account of Jones’s interest in this case and could result in the loss of valuable evidence. Courts can manage the risk that subjecting presidents to lawsuits might result in “frivolous litigation,” or if the problem becomes serious, Congress could respond by appropriate legislation.
J. Breyer’s concurring opinion emphasized the extent to which the president needed authority “to control his own time and energy.” He should be protected from judicial orders in civil cases “to the extent that those orders could significantly interfere with his efforts to carry out his ongoing public responsibilities.” Believing that the majority may have underestimated the dangers that such cases might bring about in the future, courts might “have to develop administrative rules applicable to such cases (including postpone ment rules of the sort at issue in this case) in order to implement the basic constitutional directive.”
Note—The investigation of this case led in part to uncovering Clinton’s affair (and its concealment) with intern Monica Lewinsky that resulted in his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate did not convict.