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Lawsuits Are Cudgels, Presidents Need Armor : Delay civil actions just until they leave office

Sometime soon a federal judge in Little Rock will consider a motion whose central idea is that the President of the United States should be immune from all civil lawsuits, specifically from suits growing out of actions that occurred before the President took office. There’s no precedent for seeking such immunity and there is no law that could clearly guide a ruling. But what’s at issue is not so much a point of law as the need to safeguard the orderly functioning of the presidency.

If the courts hold that a President--any President--can be sued for alleged civil wrongs that predated his inauguration, then predictably there would be no end to the number of suits such a ruling could invite. The presidency would become a lawsuit-plagued institution, its occupant bedeviled by endless and in most cases frivolous demands on his time, his personal financial resources, his energies. Presidencies could become effectively paralyzed and the nation could be left essentially leaderless.

We believe the President should be given immunity from civil suits while in office, with the immunity ending as soon as he leaves office. To protect plaintiffs’ rights, the statute of limitations in some cases might have to be extended; a temporary grant of immunity to a President must not become a permanent grant for an ex-President. Election to high office does not and should not constitute a pardon for any wrongdoing that might have earlier been committed. And no person who may have been harmed by someone later elected President should lose the right to seek justice.

The question of presidential immunity of course grows out of the $700,000 suit filed by Paula Corbin Jones, who alleges that Bill Clinton, while still governor of Arkansas, made a sexual proposal that caused her emotional distress and violated her civil rights. Jones waited three years before filing her complaint and her cause has been taken up by a number of Clinton’s longtime political enemies in Arkansas as well as by various nationally active right-wing groups and individuals. We note this not to take sides in Jones vs. Clinton , but only to bring forward the possibility we raised earlier, that partisanship alone could possibly inspire or encourage many civil suits against the President.

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The Supreme Court properly held a dozen years ago that Presidents can’t be sued for official acts carried out while they are in office. There are compelling institutional reasons for extending that immunity to civil suits arising out of pre-presidential actions, though of course not to cases involving criminal wrongdoing. The alternative is to face the threat that Presidents would be left exposed to unremitting legal harassment. The disruption to government could be enormous, and the consequences for the nation and its leadership in world affairs would be profound.

Paula Jones is entitled to her day in court. She chose to wait a full three years after the alleged event before seeking that day. We think the responsibilities of the presidency require that she now wait until Clinton is out of office to pursue her case. Without prejudice to her or any other plaintiff’s rights, the courts and Congress should do what is necessary to insulate the presidency from civil lawsuits.


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