Clinton v. Jones 1997

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Clinton v. Jones 1997

Petitioner: William J. Clinton, President of the United States

Respondent: Paula Corbin Jones

Petitioner's Claim: That the president of the United States during the term of his presidency is immune from a civil lawsuit challenging his actions prior to his taking office.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Robert S. Bennett

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Gilbert K. Davis

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: May 27, 1997

Decision: Ruled in favor of Jones by finding that the president does not have immunity from civil lawsuits relating to personal conduct not part of his official duties.

Significance: The ruling asserted that although a president can not be sued for actions related to his official duties, the president is subject to the same laws regulating purely private behavior as the general population.

On May 8, 1991, twenty-four year old Paula Corbin Jones, a state clerical employee, was working at the registration desk for a conference given by Arkansas Industrial Development Commission at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. About 2:30 pm Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas passed by the desk while attending the conference to make a speech. Shortly afterward, State Trooper Danny Ferguson approached Jones and persuaded her to go upstairs to visit the governor. Jones followed Trooper Ferguson into the hotel elevator which took them to a business suite where Clinton was waiting. Once inside the suite, Jones would later claim Clinton made crude sexual advances, which she rejected and promptly left the room. Jones would also charge that her rejection of those advances led to punishment by her supervisor in the state job she held by changing her job duties. She also claimed the state police officer had later defamed (damaged) her reputation by stating that she had accepted Clinton's advances.

A Civil Lawsuit

Bill Clinton (1993–) was elected president of the United States in 1992. In May of 1994 Jones filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas against Clinton alleging (charging) all of the above activities took place. A civil lawsuit is brought to enforce, make amends for violations, or protect rights of private individuals. It is not a criminal proceeding. Among her charges, Jones claimed her civil rights had been violated and asked for damages of $175,000.

Jones had waited until two days before the three year period of limitations would have expired ending the time period in which a lawsuit could be filed. Jones gave such reasons for not filing earlier as she was afraid of losing her job, the governor was in charge of the state so who could she trust, and now Clinton was the most powerful man in the country.

Clinton's attorneys immediately filed a motion to dismiss the charges based on presidential immunity. Presidential immunity shields the president from court interference as he carries out his executive duties and from any civil lawsuits brought against him for actions taken in performance of duties.

No Temporary Immunity

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright denied the dismissal on immunity grounds but ordered the trial be postponed until after Clinton's presidency. Both parties appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The court of appeals affirmed (agreed with) Wright's decision that Clinton did not have immunity from the lawsuit but disagreed with the postponement. Post-poning any trial until the end of Clinton's presidency, Judge Bowman of the Eighth Circuit said, was a "temporary immunity." Finding no reason to grant this to Clinton, Bowman stated, "The President, like all other government officials, is subject to the same laws that apply, to all other members of our society." Judge Bowman could find no "case in which any public official ever has been granted any immunity from suit for his unofficial [not related to his governmental duties] acts." Judge Bowman pointed out that the issue at hand involved "only personal, private conduct by a President." Clinton then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.


T he administration of President Bill Clinton, with its many attendant scandals, raised a number of issues concerning the presidency, ethics, and the law. Among these issues was the question, "Should civil suits against the president be stalled until he is out of office?" Given Clinton's enormous popularity, it is likely that the majority of Americans would have said "yes."

To look specifically at Clinton, Jones, or the suit, however, is to miss the point. In answering the question regarding presidents and civil suits, Americans should evaluate it without regard to personalities. Then they would be left with two issues: on the one hand, there was the fact that the president should not be above the law; on the other hand, responding to personal lawsuits brought against him would distract him from the important business of being president.

Court Rejects Clinton's Claims

On May 27, 1997, only months after Clinton's reelection as president, a unanimous Court affirmed the decision of the appeals court agreeing with Judge Bowman's reasoning. The Court rejected both of President Clinton's principle arguments, one involving presidential immunity and the other based on the doctrine of separation of powers.

No Immunity

In Clinton's first argument, he claimed "that [in] all but the most exceptional cases, the Constitution affords [allows] the President temporary immunity from civil . . . litigation [lawsuits] arising . . . even out of actions that happened before he took office." Clinton based this argument on a Supreme Court's earlier decision in Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982). In Nixon the Court held that a president is entitled to absolute (without any restrictions) immunity from any civil lawsuit that challenges his official actions. In other words, the president cannot be sued for conduct which relates to his duties as president. This reasoning allows presidents to carry out their designated functions effectively without fear a particular action or decision will lead to a personal lawsuit. John Paul Stevens, writing for the Court, completely denied Clinton's claim of immunity saying Nixon could not be applied in this case. "This reasoning [in Nixon] provides no support for an immunity for unofficial conduct." Clinton's actions certainly were unofficial, not remotely involved with his presidential duties. Furthermore, the Court found no basis of precedent (previous decisions) to allow any immunity toward actions occurring before a president had taken office.

No Separation of Powers Conflict

President Clinton based his second argument on the separation of powers principle. The principle guides the division of power among the three branches of government, executive (the president), legislative (Congress), and judicial (courts). One branch may not unduly interfere with another branch. Stevens wrote, Clinton "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." Clinton continued that the separation of powers places limits on the judiciary not allowing it to burden the presidency with any action such as this lawsuit that would divert the president's energy and attention away from his executive duties. Clinton did not make any claim of being "above the law," he merely argued for a postponement of the court proceeding until completion of his presidency. Although the Court accepted that the presidency is uniquely important, it found that the "separation-of-power doctrine does not require federal courts to stay [postpone] all private actions against the President until he leaves office." Stevens wrote that this case and any further legal action it might cause would not "place unacceptable burdens on the President that will hamper the performance of his official duties." The Court sent Jones' case back to district court for trial.

An Important Reminder

The Supreme Court refused to allow a sitting president to avoid a civil lawsuit just because he is president. Instead, the president may claim immunity only where the questioned actions relate to official acts and duties of the presidency. The Court's decision was an important reminder that no person in a democratic nation, including the president, is above the law.

With the case back in district court, Jones' attorneys began the process of gathering information for their case. Wright agreed that any information bearing on Clinton's sexual relationships with other state or federal employees while governor and president was relevant. In January of 1998 Clinton gave testimony, the first president to ever do so as part of a trial while in office. On April 1, 1998, in a surprise move to both parties Judge Wright dismissed the Jones lawsuit by finding


"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton publicly proclaimed while giving formal testimony to federal district court in the Paula Jones sexual assault lawsuit. Giving testimony under oath in the Paula C. Jones sexual assault case in January of 1998, Clinton declared he had no past sexual relations with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

Later, Clinton changed his story while giving testimony during a grand jury appearance in August of 1998. He admitted to "inappropriate intimate contact" with Lewinsky and misleading the public with his earlier statements. Clinton later faced an impeachment trial over the Lewinsky scandal before the U.S. Senate with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presiding. The trial ended with acquittal in February of 1999. With thoughts that his legal troubles might be over, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright found Clinton in contempt of court on April 12, 1999 for intentionally giving false testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky during his January of 1998 testimony. Wright stated that the "record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the president [gave] false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process." Wright concluded that Clinton had "undermined the integrity of the judicial system." Though no president had ever been found in contempt of court before, Wright found no constitutional restriction from doing so. She wrote, "the power to determine the legality of the President's unofficial conduct includes with it the power to issue civil contempt citations . . . for his unofficial conduct which abuses the federal [court] process." As the last chapter of the Jones case, in April of 1999 President Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to be found in contempt of court.

that Jones did not provide sufficient proof of emotional injury or discrimination at work. Jones prepared to appeal the decision, but negotiations began for a settlement. Finally, in November of 1998 Clinton agreed to pay Jones $850,000. Though Jones had originally demanded that Clinton issue an apology or admit guilt, Clinton did neither. The president sent a check for the amount in January of 1999.

Suggestions for further reading

Bugliosi, Vincent T. No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court on Trial. New York: Ballantine Books, Inc., 1998.

Conason, Joe, and Gene Lyons. The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Maraniss, David. First In His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Stephanopoulos, George. All Too Human: A Political Education. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1999.

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Clinton v. Jones 1997

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