Clinton v. Jones
Decided on May 27, 1997; 520 US 681



A. Issues Discussed:  Separation of powers 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the President, while in office, have immunity from civil litigation arising out of events which transpired prior to his taking office?


A. Background:

"Petitioner, William Jefferson Clinton, was elected to the Presidency in 1992, and re elected in 1996. His term of office expires on January 20, 2001. In 1991 he was the Governor of the State of Arkansas. Respondent, Paula Corbin Jones, is a resident of California. In 1991 she lived in Arkansas, and was an employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

On May 6, 1994, she commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas by filing a complaint naming petitioner and Danny Ferguson, a former Arkansas State Police officer, as defendants. The complaint alleges two federal claims, and two state law claims over which the federal court has jurisdiction because of the diverse citizenship of the parties...

Those allegations principally describe events that are said to have occurred on the afternoon of May 8, 1991, during an official conference held at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Governor delivered a speech at the conference; respondent--working as a state employee--staffed the registration desk. She alleges that Ferguson persuaded her to leave her desk and to visit the Governor in a business suite at the hotel, where he made 'abhorrent' sexual advances that she vehemently rejected. She further claims that her superiors at work subsequently dealt with her in a hostile and rude manner, and changed her duties to punish her for rejecting those advances. Finally, she alleges that after petitioner was elected President, Ferguson defamed her by making a statement to a reporter that implied she had accepted petitioner's alleged overtures, and that various persons authorized to speak for the President publicly branded her a liar by denying that the incident had occurred.

In response to the complaint, petitioner promptly advised the District Court that he intended to file a motion to dismiss on grounds of Presidential immunity, and requested the court to defer all other pleadings and motions until after the immunity issue was resolved... Petitioner thereupon filed a motion 'to dismiss . . . without prejudice and to toll any statutes of limitation [that may be applicable] until he is no longer President, at which time the plaintiff may refile the instant suit.'

...The District Judge denied the motion to dismiss on immunity grounds and ruled that discovery in the case could go forward, but ordered any trial stayed until the end of petitioner's Presidency.

...Both parties appealed. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss, but because it regarded the order postponing the trial until the President leaves office as the 'functional equivalent' of a grant of temporary immunity, it reversed that order. Writing for the majority, Judge Bowman explained that 'the President, like all other government officials, is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society,' ...that he could find no 'case in which any public official ever has been granted any immunity from suit for his unofficial acts,' and that the rationale for official immunity 'is inapposite where only personal, private conduct by a President is at issue,'...

The President, represented by private counsel, filed a petition for certiorari. The Solicitor General, representing the United States, supported the petition, arguing that the decision of the Court of Appeals was 'fundamentally mistaken' and created 'serious risks for the institution of the Presidency.' In her brief in opposition to certiorari, respondent argued that this 'one of a kind case is singularly inappropriate' for the exercise of our certiorari jurisdiction because it did not create any conflict among the Courts of Appeals, it 'does not pose any conceivable threat to the functioning of the Executive Branch,' and there is no precedent supporting the President's position."


On certiorari the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

Unavailable Unavailable

C. The Arguments:

Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable


Opposing Side
ACLU brief of amici curiae urging affirmance by Christopher A. Hansen and Steven R. Shapiro. Unavailable

"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.

...This reasoning provides no support for an immunity for unofficial conduct...

...Petitioner's effort to construct an immunity from suit for unofficial acts grounded purely in the identity of his office is unsupported by precedent...

In the end, as applied to the particular question before us, we reach the same conclusion about these historical materials that Justice Jackson described when confronted with an issue concerning the dimensions of the President's power. 'Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharoah. A century and a half of partisan debate and scholarly speculation yields no net result but only supplies more or less apt quotations from respected sources on each side . . . . They largely cancel each other.'

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.

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.' 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. The burden on the President's time and energy that is a mere byproduct of such review surely cannot be considered as onerous as the direct burden imposed by judicial review and the occasional invalidation of his official actions. 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."

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
(Unanimous Decision for Respondent/Appellee)

  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.