Nixon v. Fitzgerald 1982

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Nixon v. Fitzgerald 1982

Petitioner: President Richard M. Nixon

Respondent: Ernest Fitzgerald

Petitioner's Claim: That a president should not be held legally liable for his actions while performing the duties of his office.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Herbert J. Miller, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: John E. Nolan, Jr.

Justices for the Court: Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: June 24, 1982

Decision: Ruled in favor of Nixon by holding that the president possesses absolute immunity from civil lawsuits while performing his official duties

Significance: The ruling expanded the principle of executive immunity first recognized by the Court in 1867. The president holds "absolute immunity" from civil liability for actions taken during the course of carrying out his constitutional duties. The Court held that the presidency is a special office worthy of special protections against civil lawsuits.

The first key U.S. Supreme Court ruling on executive immunity, Mississippi v. Johnson (1867) came amid the bitter years of Reconstruction. Congress and President Andrew Johnson (1865–1869) were attempting to carry out policies to rebuild the nation following the Civil War. Executive immunity shields the president from judicial (the courts) interference as he exercises his executive powers. In Mississippi, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase acknowledged that, according the ruling in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Court could order a president to perform a ministerial duty. A ministerial duty is a simple, specific duty to carry out a government function. This type of duty requires no political interpretation or judgement. But, Chase explained presidential actions which did involve political judgements were beyond the reach of judicial interference. In Mississippi the Court had been asked to stop President Johnson from carrying out an act passed by Congress, an activity which would require the president to make judgement calls. This, Chase said, the Court could not do. It could neither require the president to take specific action nor, on the other hand, prevent him from acting in such situations. This ruling had its roots in the Constitution's system of separation of power—allowing the three branches, executive (president), the legislature (Congress), and the judicial (courts) to function without undue influence from each other.

Over one hundred years later, the Court in Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982) strengthened executive immunity further. The Court granted the president legal protection from civil liability lawsuits when his official presidential actions caused loses to another party. Civil liability are legal terms describing the situation of being subject to a legal obligation or responsibility such as having to pay damages (money) to an injured party when a dispute is settled. Civil means these disputes are between individuals in such areas as contracts, property, and family law. They do not involve criminal law. In Nixon, the Court decided on a very broad protection for the president from civil liability which they called "absolute immunity." The case arose from the predicament of Ernest Fitzgerald.

Ernest Loses His Job

Employed by the U.S. Air Force, Ernest Fitzgerald worked as a cost analyst, one who analyzes the spending of an agency or company. In the last months of President Lyndon B. Johnson's (1963–1969) administration, Fitzgerald testified before Congress that he had discovered serious cost overruns, excessive unbudgeted spending, on the C-5A transport plane development project. Angry over Fitzgerald's testimony, embarrassed officials at the Defense Department planned a way to eliminate his job. Supposedly, as part of a money saving reorganization effort, Fitzgerald's job was done away with in 1969 when President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974) came into office. Nixon in a news conference said he was responsible for Fitzgerald's removal but later retracted (changed) that statement and denied responsibility. Fitzgerald believed he had lost his job directly because of his testimony on Capitol Hill. Fitzgerald complained to the Civil Service Commission which, although not finding a political plot, reinstated him saying he was removed for personal reasons. In 1982, Fitzgerald sued former President Nixon for damages.

The lower federal courts declared the president immune and dismissed Fitzgerald's suit. However, the court of appeals reversed the decision saying Nixon did not have immunity. Nixon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many Important Questions

Many important questions were in front of the Court. Should the president be immune from actions taken in performance of official duties? If so, should the immunity be absolute (with no exceptions) or should there merely be limits set on when a president can be sued? Taking a different approach, should focus be on the actions themselves with some actions immune and others not? Or, finally, should a president simply be shielded from all suits because of the distraction and disruptions they would create? These were the important questions the Court considered.

An Easy Target

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Nixon saying a president is immune from all civil lawsuits resulting from his actions as president. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., wrote the majority opinion observing that the president's office was unique and different from all other executive offices. The president dealt with incredibly important issues often highly sensitive and highly charged, arousing citizens' passions. Powell commented,

In view of the visibility of his office and the effect of his actions on countless people, the President would be an easily identifiable target for suits for civil damages . . . this personal vulnerability [open to attack or criticism] frequently could distract a President from his public duties, to the detriment [harm] not only of the President and his office but also the Nation that the Presidency was designed to serve.

Due to these "special" circumstances the Court found "absolute immunity" from all civil lawsuits appropriate. The Court rejected the line of thinking that immunity should be based on the action with some actions immune and others not. If this rule was adopted, every action a president takes would be subject to cries of unfairness. Therefore, the Court said the office as a whole, not individual actions, would be shielded with immunity.

Above the Law?

The dissenting justices believed the Court's opinion placed "the President above the law." To them the president could cause injury to "any number of citizens even though he knows his conduct violates a statute [law] or tramples on the constitutional rights of those who are injured."

Justice Powell responded by listing the many other ways besides a civil lawsuit that a president may be held accountable for his actions. The list included impeachment, scrutiny by the media, the desire to avoid misconduct or win reelection, and consideration of one's reputation in history.


W hile no mention of either is made in the U.S. Constitution, both executive immunity and executive privilege are important to the president as he exercises his power. Both immunities shield the president to a large degree from interference by the other two branches of government. Executive immunity and privilege are grounded in the Constitution's system of separation of powers.

Executive immunity protects the president from court interference with his policy-making duties. For example, a court cannot require a president to take action or, on the other hand, stop action on any specific political duty such as making policies to carry out laws passed by Congress. The president is also immune from any civil lawsuits brought against him for actions taken in performance of his duties.

Executive privilege allows the president to withhold, in certain instances, information, testimony of aides, and documents from public or congressional probes. This privilege was first used by George Washington, but not until United States v. Nixon (1974) did the Supreme Court recognize it formally as a limited privilege.

Companion Case

Decided the same day as Nixon was the companion case Harlow v. Fitzgerald. In this case the Court held that the president's aides were not entitled to absolute immunity from civil lawsuits. Their immunity was qualified meaning they were protected unless their actions violated a clearly established law which a "reasonable person" should have been aware of.

Suggestions for further reading

Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon: A Life. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishers, 1996.

Berger, Raoul. Executive Privilege: A Constitutional Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Maroon, Fred J., and Tom Wicker. The Nixon Years, 1969-1974: White House to Watergate. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999.

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Nixon v. Fitzgerald 1982

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