Respondent, a private citizen, seeks to recover damages from the current occupant of that office based on actions allegedly taken before his term began. The President submits that in the most exceptional cases the Constitution requires federal courts to defer such litigation until his term ends and that in any event, respect for the office warrants such a stay.
When the President takes official action, the Court has the authority to determine whether he has acted within the law. The President is subject to judicial process in appropriate circumstances.
Petitioner, William Jefferson Clinton, was elected to the Presidency in 1992 and re-elected in 1996. His term of office expires in 2001. In 1991 when he was the Governor of the State of Arkansas, respondent, Julia Jones was his employee. She alleges that she was forced to leave her desk and to visit the Governor in a business suite at the hotel, where he made ‘abhorrent’ sexual advances that she vehemently rejected. She further claims that her superiors at work subsequently dealt with her in a hostile and rude manner, and changed her duties to punish her for rejecting those advances. Respondent seeks actual damages of $75,000 and punitive damages of $100,000.
Does the Constitution requires federal courts to defer a litigation against the President while he is in the office?
No, if the Court may severely burden the Executive Branch by reviewing the legality of the President’s official conduct, and if it may direct appropriate process to the President himself, it must follow that the federal courts have power to determine the legality of his unofficial conduct. The burden on the President’s time and energy that is a mere by-product of such review surely cannot be considered as onerous as the direct burden imposed by judicial review and the occasional invalidation of his official actions. Thus, the separation of powers doctrine does not require federal courts to say all private actions against the President until he leaves office.
Once the President has set forth and explains a conflict between judicial proceeding and public duties, the matter changes. At the point, the Constitution allows a judge to schedule a trial in an ordinary civil damages action, where postponement is normally possible. There is no automatic temporary immunity and that the President should have to provide the district court with a reasoned explanation of why the immunity is needed. In the absence of the explanation as here, the court may refuse to postpone the trial date.
If the Framers of the Constitution had thought it necessary to protect the President from the burdens of private litigation, they would have adopted a categorical rule than a rule that required the President to litigate the question whether a specific case belonged in the “exceptional case” subcategory. The question whether a specific case should receive exceptional treatment is more appropriately the subject of the exercise of judicial discretion than an interpretation of the Constitution. If Congress deems it appropriate to afford the President stronger protection, it may respond with appropriate legislation. Congress has in fact enacted more than one statute providing for the deferral of civil litigation to accommodate important public interests. If the Constitution embodied the rule that the President advocates, Congress could not repeal it. However, the Court’s holding today raises no barrier to a statutory response to these concerns.