Unofficial Conduct

In Clinton v. Jones,826 the Court, in a case of first impression, held that the President did not have qualified immunity from civil suit for conduct alleged to have taken place prior to his election, and therefore denied the President’s request to delay both the trial and discovery. The Court held that its precedents affording the President immunity from suit for his official conduct—primarily on the basis that he should be enabled to perform his duties effectively without fear that a particular decision might give rise to personal liability—were inapplicable in this kind of case. Moreover, the separation-of-powers doctrine did not require a stay of all private actions against the President. Separation of powers is preserved by guarding against the encroachment or aggrandizement of one of the coequal branches of the government at the expense of another. However, a federal trial court tending to a civil suit in which the President is a party performs only its judicial function, not a function of another branch. No decision by a trial court could curtail the scope of the President’s powers. The trial court, the Supreme Court observed, had sufficient powers to accommodate the President’s schedule and his workload, so as not to impede the President’s performance of his duties. Finally, the Court stated its belief that allowing such suits to proceed would not generate a large volume of politically motivated harassing and frivolous litigation. Congress has the power, the Court advised, if it should think necessary to legislate, to afford the President protection.827

Footnotes

826
520 U.S. 681 (1997). [Back to text]
827
The Court observed at one point that it doubted that defending the suit would much preoccupy the President, that his time and energy would not be much taken up by it. “If the past is any indicator, it seems unlikely that a deluge of such litigation will ever engulf the Presidency.” 520 U.S. at 702. [Back to text]