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On The Front Lines

No One Is Above the Law, Including the President, Says Appeals Court, Citing Paula Jones Case As Rationale for Rejecting Trump’s Claim of Immunity

NEW YORK, N.Y  — Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Clinton v. Jones (1997), in which a unanimous Court held that the president is not above the law and may be sued for misconduct committed outside of his official duties, a New York appeals court has rejected President Trump’s request to dismiss or delay a defamation lawsuit brought against him. Clinton v. Jones arose in relation to a sexual harassment lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton which successfully argued that presidents do not have immunity from federal court lawsuits brought by citizens harmed by the president before he or she takes office. The ruling by the N.Y. Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in Zervos v. Trump found that President Trump is similarly not shielded from a state court lawsuit under a provision of the U.S. Constitution making federal law superior to state law. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute assisted Paula Jones in advancing the arguments in her lawsuit against Bill Clinton, which alleged that Clinton, while serving as Governor of Arkansas, lured Jones—then a state employee—up to a Little Rock hotel room, dropped his pants, and propositioned her for oral sex. The lawsuit eventually ended with Clinton paying $850,000 to settle the case.

“For too long now, America has played politics with its principles and allowed the president and his colleagues to act in violation of the rule of law. ‘We the people’ are paying the price for it now,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Americans have allowed Congress, the White House and the Judiciary to wreak havoc with our freedoms. They have tolerated an oligarchy in which a powerful, elite group of wealthy donors is calling the shots. They have paid homage to patriotism while allowing the military industrial complex to spread death and destruction abroad. And they have turned a blind eye to all manner of wrongdoing when it was politically expedient. This culture of compliance must stop.”

In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Donald Trump’s television show The Apprentice, made public allegations accusing Trump of engaging in sexual misconduct with her. Then-candidate Trump responded by accusing Zervos and other women who made similar allegations against him of lying and of making the allegations in order to hurt his bid for the presidency.  After Trump was elected and three days before his inauguration in January 2019, Zervos filed a defamation lawsuit against Trump, alleging that he knowingly, maliciously and falsely accused her of being a liar and that this damaged her reputation and injured her in her trade, business and occupation. Trump moved to dismiss the claim, or have it stayed during his presidency, arguing that the U.S. Constitution prevents a state court from entertaining a civil lawsuit against a sitting president. Specifically, Trump relied upon the Supremacy Clause of Art. IV of the Constitution, which provides that “the Laws of the United States . . ., shall be the supreme Law of the Land[.]” A New York trial court rejected Trump’s motion. An appeals court also rejected Trump’s claim that the state court could not entertain a lawsuit against him while he was president, relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Clinton v. Jones.  The New York court ruled that the principles established by the Clinton case controlled in Trump’s case and that nothing in the Supremacy Clause requires the court to dismiss or stay Zervos’ defamation action against Trump. Clinton v. Jones involved a lawsuit alleging that Bill Clinton had sexually harassed Paula Jones, a government employee, in the early 1990s while he was Governor of Arkansas. Jones’ attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that a president is not above the law and can be held to account for harm caused by his misconduct unrelated to his presidential duties.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.