The plaintiff sued the former President and his claim rests on actions allegedly taken in the former President’s official capacity during his tenure in office.
An official’s absolute immunity should extend only to acts in performance of particular functions of his office.
Respondent A. Ernest Fitzgerald lost his job as a management analyst with the Department of the Air Force. The Air Force characterized the decision to promote efficiency and economy in the armed forces. During his employment, to the embarrassment of his superiors, Fitzgerald testified that certain plane could approximate $2 billion and revealed that unexpected technical difficulties had arisen during the development of the aircraft. Fitzgerald was dismissed, an action for which President Nixon took responsibility. Fitzgerald sued Nixon for damages after the Civil Service Commission concluded that his dismissal was unjust.
Is the President immune from prosecution in a civil suit?
Yes, the petitioner, as a former President of the United States, is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts. This immunity is a fundamentally mandated incident of the President’s unique office, rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history.
Attaching absolute immunity to the President, rather than to particular activities that the President might perform, places the President above the law. There is no contention that the President is immune from criminal prosecution in the courts under the criminal laws enacted by congress. The Constitution provides that impeachment shall not bar “indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment, according to law.”
The Presidential immunity is limited to civil damage claims. Also, a President, like members of Congress, judges, prosecutors – all having absolute immunity – are not immune from acts outside official duties. When litigation processes are not tightly controlled, they can be and are used as mechanisms of extortion.
Because of the singular importance of the the President’s duties, diversion of his energies by concern with private lawsuits would raise unique risks to the effective functioning of government. Moreover, a rule of absolute immunity for the President will not leave the Nation without sufficient protection against misconduct on the part of the chief executive. There remains the constitutional remedy of impeachment. Also, there are formal and informal checks on Presidential action that do not apply with equal force to the other executive officials. The President is subjected to constant scrutiny by the press. Vigilant oversight by Congress may also serve to deter Presidential abuses as office as well as to make credible the threat of impeachment. The existence of alternative remedies and deterrents establishes that absolute immunity will not place the President above the law.