Clinton v. Jones

520 U.S. 681, 117 S.Ct. 1636 (1997)

Quick Summary

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Paula Corbin Jones (plaintiff) sued William Jefferson Clinton (defendant), alleging unwanted sexual advances and subsequent punitive actions. The case questioned whether a sitting President could be immune from civil lawsuits for actions taken before office.

The Supreme Court decided that a President is not immune from civil litigation for unofficial acts prior to their term and that such cases do not necessarily need to be deferred. The decision allows legal proceedings against a sitting President, provided they do not impede his official duties.

Facts of the Case

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Paula Corbin Jones (plaintiff) filed a lawsuit against William Jefferson Clinton (defendant), the sitting President of the United States at the time. The dispute arose from an incident in 1991, when Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas and Jones was an employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

Jones alleged that Clinton made unwanted sexual advances towards her during a conference at a hotel, which she rejected. She claimed this led to punitive changes to her work duties and defamation after Clinton became President.

Jones sought damages for the emotional distress and harm to her reputation. She charged Clinton with violating her federal rights and also brought state law claims for emotional distress and defamation. The case raised significant constitutional questions about the President’s immunity from civil litigation for actions taken before assuming office.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Jones filed her lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
  2. The district court initially granted a motion to stay the trial but allowed discovery to proceed.
  3. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the stay, allowing the case to proceed.
  4. Clinton then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether a sitting President is entitled to absolute immunity from civil litigation for actions taken before taking office and whether litigation should be deferred until after the President’s term.

Rule of Law

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The President does not have immunity from civil litigation for actions that are outside of his official duties and unrelated to the office, even if those actions occurred before his term began.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Supreme Court found no historical or constitutional basis for granting a sitting President immunity from civil litigation for unofficial acts. The Court emphasized that separation of powers does not mean a President can avoid participation in legal proceedings entirely.

The Court also noted that the judiciary has the authority to determine if the President has acted within the law, even during his tenure.

Additionally, the Court acknowledged that while certain demands on a President’s time might warrant deference, this does not equate to immunity from civil litigation. The Court expressed confidence that federal judges could manage these cases without interfering with Presidential duties.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision, allowing the case to proceed without granting the President immunity or deferral solely based on his office.

Concurring Opinions

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Justice Breyer concurred in judgment but emphasized the need for courts to consider a President’s unique role and responsibilities when scheduling trials in civil cases. He maintained that the Constitution contains a principle that protects a President from judicial actions that could impede his ability to carry out official duties.

Key Takeaways

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  1. A sitting President of the United States is not immune from civil litigation for actions outside of official duties, even if those actions occurred before taking office.
  2. The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit a sitting President from being subject to federal court jurisdiction in civil matters.
  3. The Supreme Court holds that concerns about a President’s distraction due to litigation do not amount to constitutional immunity from suit.

Relevant FAQs of this case

Can a government official claim immunity for actions taken prior to their term in office?

No, government officials cannot claim immunity for actions that are personal in nature and occurred before their tenure in office. Immunity typically applies to acts within official capacity during the term of service.

  • For example: A mayor cannot invoke immunity for a contract breach occurring during their time as a business owner before election.

What constitutional principles guide courts when considering lawsuits against sitting Presidents?

Courts are guided by the Constitution’s provisions on separation of powers and the judiciary’s duty to interpret the law, ensuring Presidents are not immune from civil litigation unrelated to their official duties.

  • For example: A court allows a lawsuit against a sitting President regarding a pre-election private transaction, as it doesn’t involve presidential functions.

How do courts balance a President’s official responsibilities with civil litigation demands?

Courts balance these concerns by exercising discretion in scheduling to minimize interference with presidential duties without granting outright immunity from civil litigation.

  • For example: A court could schedule depositions and hearings around the President’s known public duties to avoid conflicts.


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