Clinton v. Jones Case Summary

In 1994, the United States Supreme Court held that a president is not immune from litigation based on their private conduct. The justices assumed that a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton wouldn't take up too much of his time. Little did they know it would lead to his impeachment. 

Paula Corbin Jones filed a lawsuit in 1994 alleging that President Bill Clinton had sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas. By the time she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, he was president -- and claimed the presidency made him immune to civil litigation.

The case led to an important ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. It also propelled former White House intern Monica Lewinsky into the national spotlight when court documents became public.

The Supreme Court held that nothing in the Constitution protects the president from civil lawsuits while they are in office. And President Clinton was eventually impeached for lying under oath.

Background

Jones met then-Governor William Jefferson Clinton in the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was working, handing out name tags for a conference on May 8, 1991. Jones said that during the conference, a local police officer named Danny Ferguson brought her to a private hotel room to meet Clinton. Jones alleged that Clinton crudely propositioned her to perform oral sex on him, but she rejected his advances.

Jones kept quiet about the incident for more than two years, fearing no one would believe her. But she finally emerged with her story in 1994 when American Spectator Magazine ran an article that implied someone named "Paula" had been a willing sexual partner of Clinton's.

From the start, Clinton denied any wrongdoing. He accused Jones of being an opportunist who went public with her story to make money and harm him politically. But Jones said that after she refused his sexual advances, she faced punishment in her job as an Arkansas state employee.

Procedural History

On August 10, 1994, Clinton filed a motion to dismiss Jones's suit on the grounds of presidential immunity. He argued that allowing private actions to proceed against a sitting president would:

  • Interfere with their official duties
  • Violate the separation of powers

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright sided with Clinton's team on December 28, 1994.

District Judge Wright ruled that a trial could not take place until Clinton had left office. However, she allowed fact-finding procedures, such as taking sworn statements, to proceed. Jones filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to reverse the postponement of her trial.

On January 9, 1996, the three-judge appellate panel ruled 2-1 that Jones's lawsuit could go to trial. They reasoned that "the President, like all other government officials, is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society."

Clinton appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing that the president should not face civil lawsuits while in office, even for private conduct. Clinton's lawyers pushed to have the case put off until Clinton left office, saying that, given the demands of the presidency, he should not be required to answer to civil claims.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. Because he appealed to SCOTUS, Clinton is listed as the petitioner, and Jones is the respondent (even though Jones filed the original lawsuit, Jones v. Clinton).

The parties presented their arguments before the Supreme Court just a week before Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the oath of office at Clinton's swearing-in for his second term as president.

Supreme Court Decision in Clinton v. Jones

Clinton's argument did not succeed at the Supreme Court. On May 27, 1997, they ruled in a stunning 9-0 decision that Jones' case could proceed.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion for the court. The court's decision stated that the president, like other government officials, is immune from civil lawsuits based on their official acts.

The court established this rule about 15 years earlier in Nixon v. Fitzgerald. In that case, the justices saw a need for presidents to have some protection from personal liability for their official actions. Otherwise, they thought presidents would be unable to exercise the full power and discretion given to them under the Constitution, fearing lawsuits around every corner.

However, the Constitution and precedent provide no such protection for unofficial conduct.

Furthermore, the court rejected Clinton's argument that a civil lawsuit would lead to problems between different branches of government, stating:

"The litigation of questions that relate entirely to the unofficial conduct of the individual who happens to be the President poses no perceptible risk of misallocation of either judicial power or executive power."

The full court agreed that the doctrine of separation of powers does not require federal courts to “stay" (put on hold) private lawsuits filed against a sitting president.

The decision was bolstered by United States v. Nixon (1974), which provided that the President of the United States does not possess unqualified or absolute immunity from investigation or litigation. Instead, they possess temporary immunity from lawsuits related to their official conduct in office.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Clarence Thomas all joined the majority opinion.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a separate concurring opinion. In this concurrence, Justice Breyer pointed out that the case may have turned out differently if Clinton had produced concrete evidence that dealing with a civil lawsuit interfered with his presidential duties.

As it turns out, Justice Stevens was wrong about the case being “highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time." Instead, it led to Clinton's impeachment.

How Did Clinton v. Jones Lead to Clinton's Impeachment?

Because the Supreme Court's ruling in Clinton v. Jones held that presidential immunity did not protect Clinton in this case, Jones' lawsuit was allowed to move forward.

While preparing for trial, Paula Jones' attorneys built their case around the idea that Clinton had a history of harassing women. In December 1997, they added former White House intern Monica Lewinsky to their potential witness list.

At first, Lewinsky denied having a sexual relationship with President Clinton, although Jones' lawyers had reason to believe she did. In his deposition under oath, Clinton denied being sexually involved with Lewinsky.

Around the same time, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating a land deal Clinton had been a party to before taking office. Then, a former White House secretary named Linda Tripp approached him with evidence that Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky. And it became apparent that Clinton lied under oath and had possibly influenced Lewinsky to do the same.

Starr eventually delivered a report on his findings to Congress. In the report, Starr outlined 11 possible grounds for impeachment based on perjury, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power.

The House of Representatives impeached Clinton on December 19, 1998, for perjury and obstruction of justice. However, neither count received enough votes to convict and remove Clinton from office. He was the second president to face impeachment proceedings.

For more summaries of important Supreme Court cases, visit FindLaw's Supreme Court Insights.

Was this helpful?