Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731; 102 S. Ct. 2690; 73 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1982)
Facts—Fitzgerald lost his job as a management analyst with the Air Force during the Nixon presidency after Fitzgerald was involved in a public hearing exposing cost overruns on a transport plane. After failing to appeal his dismissal within the statute of limitations, Fitzgerald amended his complaint as a civil suit against former President Nixon. The U.S. District Court failed to grant Nixon immunity, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed. Nixon and Fitzgerald came to a monetary settlement but left some $28,000 riding on the outcome of whether the courts would accept the idea of presidential immunity in this case.
Question—Does a U.S. president have absolute immunity for civil suits raised against him for actions taken in his official capacity as president?
Reasons—J. Powell (5–4). Powell viewed immunity from civil suits in connection with official presidential actions to be related to the president’s unique office, to the separation of powers, and to U.S. history. “The President’s unique status under the Constitution distinguishes him from other executive officials.” Such suits could divert the president’s energies from his duties. The president’s visibility would further make him “an easily identifi- able target for suits for civil damages.” Similarly, the doctrine of separation of powers required attention to possible intrusion on exercises of presidential authority, which cover matters involving a great deal of discretionary responsibility. Exempting presidents from civil suits for actions they take while in office will still leave the remedy of impeachment as well as scrutiny by the press and oversight by Congress.
C.J. Burger’s concurrence put further focus on separation of powers, arguing that the decision allowed the president to act “free from risk of control, interference, or intimidation by other branches,” and, particularly, from “undue judicial scrutiny.”
J. White’s dissent argued that the immunity granted in this case was too broad and threatened the idea of a government of laws. Although the speech and debate clause granted absolute immunity to members of Congress, the Constitution vested no such immunity in the President, and White’s review of the historical record indicated that the Founders had not intended to grant such immunity. Although presidential immunity might not leave the nation defenseless, “it will leave future plaintiffs without a remedy, regardless of the substantiality of their claims.” J. Blackmun also emphasized the president’s accountability under the law and questioned the settlement to which Nixon and Fitzgerald had agreed, leading him to believe that the Court had improvidently granted standing in this case.