Clinton v. Jones 520 U.S. 681 (1997)

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CLINTON v. JONES 520 U.S. 681 (1997)

Clinton v. Jones is one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions on presidential immunity. The case involved the issue of whether a sitting President was immune to civil actions based on his conduct before he took office. Whereas the Court had held 5–4 in nixon v. fitzgerald (1982) that a President was entitled to absolute immunity from civil lawsuits arising from the discharge of his official duties, a unanimous Court held in Clinton v. Jones that a President is not entitled to immunity from lawsuits based on his unofficial actions.

The plaintiff in Clinton v. Jones, Paula Corbin Jones, alleged that President william j. clinton sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas in 1991. Although Clinton denied any wrongdoing, his lawyers argued the lawsuit should be delayed until Clinton left office because burdening a President with litigation would allow judges or legal proceedings to interfere unduly with the performance of his official duties. In an opinion for eight Justices, Justice john paul stevens explained this kind of burden would never impair the "Executive's ability to perform its constitutionally mandated functions." The Court maintained that denying the President's immunity claim would not produce horrible consequences. It noted that all prior civil suits based on pre-presidential conduct—brought against theodore roosevelt, harry s. truman, and john f. kennedy—had been quickly dismissed or settled.

The Court explained that two principles supported its conclusion. The first, employed in youngstown sheet & tube co. v. sawyer (1952) and marbury v. madison (1803), was "that when the President takes official action, the Court has the authority to determine whether he has acted within the law." The second principle, applied in united states v. nixon (1973) and United States v. Burr (1807), was that "the President is subject to judicial process in appropriate circumstances." Indeed, sitting Presidents, including james monroe, richard m. nixon, and even Clinton himself, "have responded to court orders to provide testimony and other information with sufficient frequency that such interactions between the Judicial and Executive Branches" have become commonplace.

The Court remarked that a trial court could accommodate a President's scheduling needs, but refused to recognize a constitutional immunity that required such accommodations. In a separate concurrence, Justice stephen g. breyer recognized a constitutional principle "that forbids a federal Judge … to interfere with the President's discharge of his public duties." Breyer explained this principle would apply once a President had shown "a conflict between judicial proceedings and public duties."

After completing discovery in Clinton v. Jones, District Judge Susan Webber Wright dismissed the lawsuit for failing to state a legally cognizable cause of action. Her ruling did not, however, end the President's legal troubles. Before the lawsuit's dismissal, Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who had been investigating charges of possible misconduct by Clinton regarding a failed land-deal while he was governor of Arkansas, was tipped off that the President and a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, might each have lied under oath in Clinton v. Jones about the nature of their relationship. Lewinsky had filed an affidavit in the case denying that she had ever had a sexual relationship with the President, while Clinton testified in a deposition on January 17, 1998, that he had never had a sexual relationship with the intern nor ever been alone with her. Subsequent to the dismissal of Jones's lawsuit, the Independent Counsel granted Lewinsky limited immunity to testify about the President's efforts to obstruct the Jones lawyers' and Independent Counsel's lawful attempts to learn about the real nature of her relationship with the President. In an appearance before a federal grand jury on August 18, 1998, Clinton acknowledged an "inappropriate relationship" with Lewinsky but defended the truthfulness of his prior testimony and actions to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky.

Shortly after the President's grand jury appearance, Starr referred to the U.S. house of representatives materials that he claimed indicated that the President had committed eleven possible impeachable offenses in trying to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky from Jones's lawyers and Starr's office. The referral sparked an impeachment inquiry against the President. In the midst of the House's proceedings, the President settled Paula Jones's lawsuit then pending on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Nevertheless, the House impeached the President for perjury and obstruction of justice. On February 12, 1999, the U.S. senate acquitted the President on both charges.

Within a month of the President's acquittal, Wright cited him for contempt based on his untruthful testimony in his deposition. In the contempt citation, Wright concluded that "the President's deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false." Consequently, Wright fined the President for the reasonable expenses incurred by the plaintiff's attorneys because of his testimony and by the judge in attending to the deposition. She also referred the matter "to the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct for review and any disciplinary action it deems appropriate."

Clinton v. Jones and its fallout have engendered criticism of every institution with which the case has come into contact. For many scholars, the fact that the lawsuit and its fallout paralyzed the national government for over a year flatly contradicts the Supreme Court's assumption in Clinton v. Jones that a civil lawsuit based on a President's activities before taking office could proceed without substantially interfering with a President's ability to do his job. Many other scholars, prosecutors, and members of Congress have abandoned support for the Independent Counsel Act; they claim Starr's relentless investigation of the President for nearly six years, including Starr's controversial investigation of matters relating to Clinton v. Jones (a case many believe was politically motivated), demonstrates the dangerous and uncontrollable lengths to which a politically unaccountable prosecutor will go to vindicate his charge.

A vocal minority defends Clinton v. Jones by placing primary responsibility on the President for the case's fallout. They suggest he could have avoided impeachment and contempt by being more candid in his deposition and grand jury testimony. Moreover, the President's acquittal ironically tracks the logic of the Court's decision in Clinton v. Jones. After all, the Court indicated that it would not have allowed the lawsuit against Clinton to proceed had it involved anything that implicated his official duties. Many senators voted against—and much of the public consistently opposed—the President's removal because his misconduct lacked a sufficiently public dimension or nexus to his official duties.

Consequently, the questions remain in what other fora and when a sitting President may be held accountable for unimpeachable misconduct. The suggestion in Clinton v. Jones that one such forum is a civil proceeding generates more concerns than it allays, because it plainly allows, as the fallout from the case demonstrates, a plaintiff or judge to interfere, perhaps substantially, with a President's performance of his duties. Indeed, Clinton v. Jones exacerbates these concerns further, for it leaves unaddressed whether a President before being impeached may be criminally prosecuted or imprisoned. Regardless of the legitimacy of these concerns, Clinton v. Jones clarified that in the future a President's only options in the face of burdensome litigation will not be constitutional immunity but rather a congressional act creating immunity or a sympathetic exercise of a trial judge's scheduling discretion.

Michael J. Gerhardt