Presidential Immunity: Cases In The Supreme Court

Presidential Immunity: Cases In The Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court has had to rule on issues regarding Presidential immunity in a few cases. Three specifically have helped to set the precedent for how the court would interpret another case brought before the court. In Mississippi v. Johnson the ruling decided whether a president can have an injunction placed on him/her based on the carrying out of their executive duties. Next, in the case of Nixon v. Fitzgerald the court ruled on whether a president can be personally sued for decisions they made while in office that violated established law. Lastly, in the case of Jones v. Clinton it was decided if a president could be granted immunity from a civil suit not in relation to his/her office, simply because of the importance of the presidency and the time necessary to dedicate to the job. These three cases involving Presidential immunity have shaped the way a court would interpret a case involving such if faced today.
In response to the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 the state of Mississippi brought suit against the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, claiming that the laws were un-constitutional. The opinion of the court was given by the Chief Justice, and ruled that an injunction against the president could not be made for duties performed by the president within his duties delineated in Article II of the Constitution. In the ruling the court explained the president’s role in this specific case was not ministerial as the state of Mississippi had argued but was rather an act based on his executive and political duties. Quoting Chief Justice Marshall the court explained that an attempt by the judicial branch to oversee such duties would be “an absurd and excessive extravagance.” The opinion further explains that even though the court in this case is not being asked to tell the executive what it must do but rather telling it what it cannot do, the court must not stray from the underlying principle. Thus, the ruling in this case is that the President of the United States cannot be sued to prevent the carrying out of his/her executive responsibilities.
The case of Nixon v. Fitzgerald was brought before the court as a suit against the president for allegedly getting rid of a Federal employee for political reasons and not structural reasons as he claimed. The employee, Ernest Fitzgerald, was a civilian management analyst for the U.

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S. Air Force. He, under a congressional committee hearing claimed that cost overruns for the C-5A transport plane might reach as high as 2 billion dollars and that there were technical problems along with the cost. Thirteen months later he was released from his job on the premise that department reorganization had made a reduction in staff necessary, a claim which the United States Air Force upholds. The majority opinion of the court ruled that the President cannot be sued for acts within the “outer perimeter” of his official responsibility. The justification for their ruling stemmed mainly from the idea that the president’s office is “rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history.” They base this ruling on Article Two of the constitution which states that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” The claim is that because of the President’s position he should be immune due to the time that could be taken up by private law suits. Furthermore, the opinion states that an inquiry into the President’s motives, like in this case, could be highly intrusive and harm national security. The dissenting opinion of the case argued that the majority’s ruling would set a pronouncement that would offer the President absolute immunity from all suits. They also argue that since only three times before this has civil suits been brought to a president that the contention that civil suits will take up a great deal of the President’s time are false. Also, the minority argues that due to this ruling that future plaintiffs will be left without a remedy and this runs contrary to what was decided in Marbury v. Madison.
The case of Clinton v. Jones brought to question whether a president could be civilly sued for actions performed outside the scope of their duties. Paula Jones, an employee of the Industrial Development Commission, was working at the registration desk where at that time Governor Clinton was giving a speech. After the speech allegedly Clinton asked a State Trooper to tell Jones that Clinton would like to see her in his hotel suite. The state trooper escorted her to Clinton’s room where he allegedly made sexual advances on her. She refused and returned to her job where she was allegedly treated unfairly and was soon transferred to a position that had little advancement potential. She thus decided to sue in the amounts of 75K for actual damages and 100K in punitive damages. A lower court ordered the trial to be postponed due to the importance and delicacy of the President’s position, however the court of appeals reversed the decision and thus Clinton appealed to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that Nixon v. Fitzgerald’s decision did not apply to this case because that decision was based on “the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it.” The opinion further argues that when a case like this arises if it will take up time which the president cannot afford, or if the investigation would bring forth matters which would be detrimental to government that a lower court could in fact decide to delay the trial. Furthermore, the opinion states that the Judiciary will not be interfering with the Executive’s power by ruling on this case and is thus not violating the separation of powers.
If a case were to be brought before the Supreme Court today dealing with presidential immunity then the three cases previously mentioned would help to justify the decision. If the case involved immunity for a president based on he/she performing duties explained in Article II of the Constitution then he/she would be granted immunity based on the ruling in Mississippi v. Johnson, and Nixon v. Fitzgerald. However, the precedent from both of these cases and also Jones is that the immunity is based on the functions of the presidency and not the actual position itself, thus a president can still be sued for unlawful acts. Further, a president if acting illegally within his/her duties then an impeachment trial would have to be instituted by Congress. In Clinton v. Jones it was established that the position of President does not exclude the individual from civil suits. The cases mentioned have developed the law of the land involving Presidential immunity.
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