Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982)

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Case Summary

A. Ernest Fitzgerald claimed that he lost his employment with the Air Force because he gave testimony before Congress that was critical of his employer. He tried to add President Nixon as a defendant in his suit, but Nixon argued that a President cannot be sued for actions taken while in office. The trial and appellate court rejected the President's claim of immunity, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the President is entitled to absolute immunity from liability for damages based on his official acts.

Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority. He noted that the Court had never before ruled on the scope of presidential immunity. Many public officials have a limited, or “qualified,“ immunity that applies so long as they have acted in “good faith.“ Some other officials, such as judges and prosecutors, have been given an unlimited, or “absolute,“ immunity because of the special nature of their duties. Giving the President only qualified immunity, Justice Powell argued, would make his actions subject to review by the judicial branch and might compromise the separation of powers. Lawsuits could distract the President from his official duties. The scope of the President's authority and responsibility is so broad that it is not realistic to restrict his immunity. Powell wrote that determining “good faith“ would mean that the President's motivations would have to be examined in each case, which would be highly intrusive.

Justice Byron White's dissent argued that the majority's rule was too broad. Under it, a President could “deliberately cause serious injury to any number of citizens even though he knows his conduct violates a statute or tramples on the constitutional rights of those who are injured.“

More on the Case

The Supreme Court revisited presidential immunity in Clinton v. Jones, 1997. Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton while he was President of the United States, accusing him of sexual misconduct when he was Governor of Arkansas. Clinton argued that the case should be dismissed, because the President has absolute immunity from suit.

The Supreme Court noted that Nixon v. Fitzgerald gave the President “absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts,“ but did not extend this immunity to actions that were clearly outside the scope of his presidential duties. The major rationale of Fitzgerald was to remove the possibility that the threat of litigation would make the President “unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties.“ Jones's allegations involved acts that allegedly occurred before Clinton became President, so Fitzgerald's reasoning did not apply and Jones should be allowed to bring her case.

Finally, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the trial court judge would have the discretion to schedule the various aspects of the case to minimize disruption of the President's official duties. The Court ruled that it is not appropriate, however, to automatically require the plaintiff to wait until the end of the President's term in office.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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