Clinton v. Jones

Following is the case brief for Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997)

Case Summary of Clinton v. Jones:

  • Paula Jones filed a sexual harassment claim in federal district court against President Bill Clinton for acts alleged to have occurred when Clinton was still Governor of Arkansas.
  • The district court denied the President’s motion to dismiss on grounds of presidential immunity, yet ordered that any trial in the matter occur after the President leaves office.
  • The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss, but reversed the order allowing a stay until the President leaves office.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Eighth Circuit’s decision, holding that a civil lawsuit against a sitting president can proceed if the subject of the lawsuit is unrelated to the president’s official duties.

Clinton v. Jones Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee accused President Bill Clinton of making unwanted sexual advances when Clinton was still Governor of Arkansas.  Accordingly, Jones brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton in federal district court.

The lawsuit sought damages for the sexual harassment, for the negative consequences to Jones’ job due to her rejection of Clinton’s advances, and for unflattering statements made about her by officials surrounding Clinton.  Clinton, because he was currently President, moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on presidential immunity, i.e., that he was immune from suit during his time in office.

Procedural History:

  • The district court denied President Clinton’s motion to dismiss, but ordered that any trial in the lawsuit be stayed until Clinton completed his term as President.
  • The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss, but reversed the order to stay any trial until after Clinton left office. The Eighth Circuit saw that as an improper grant of temporary immunity, to which the President was not constitutionally entitled.
  • President Clinton petitioned for certiorari, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can a civil lawsuit against a sitting president proceed if the allegations are unrelated to his or her official duties?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A private civil lawsuit involving allegations that are unrelated to any official duties can proceed against a sitting president.

Reasoning:

Deferring a civil lawsuit against a sitting president is not constitutionally required.  The fact that a president has immunity from lawsuits involving his official duties does not support the notion that a president should get immunity for his unofficial conduct.

Further, our government’s structure of separation of powers is not damaged by allowing a civil suit against a president to proceed.  There is no suggestion that the judiciary would start performing any “executive”-type functions as result of the lawsuit.  The judiciary will simply be performing its typical role of adjudicating cases as with any other person in the U.S.

There is little chance that a lawsuit of this type will put unacceptable burdens on the President, or hamper the performance of his duties.  While he Eighth Circuit was not correct in finding that the stay was a form of “temporary immunity,” the district court’s stay was still an abuse of discretion because it did not properly take into account Jones’ interest in bringing the case to trial as quickly as possible.

Finally, this case will not create a risk of a flood of frivolous litigation, nor is there a concern that national security issues might prevent the President from being forthcoming.  The judiciary is equipped to handle such potential problems.  If Congress believes the President deserves further protection from civil suits while in office, then it is free to respond with legislation.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Breyer):

While agreeing with the Court, there is a chance the outcome could be different if there was solid evidence demonstrating that the President’s ability to carry out his constitutional duties as President would be interfered by defending a civil lawsuit.

Significance:

Clinton v. Jones is a significant decision because it made the larger point that a sitting president can be made to defend a civil lawsuit, for unofficial duties, while in office.  The Jones case was ultimately concluded with Clinton winning on summary judgment.  Even more significant, however, was the aftermath of the case.  Monica Lewinsky testified in the Jones case, and that testimony ultimately led to the Lewinsky Scandal, which resulted in President Clinton’s impeachment.  Contrary to what the Court said, the Jones matter ended up taking up a substantial amount of Clinton’s attention while he was President.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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