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Can I Sue the President?

Justice Scales and books and wooden gavel

No–you cannot sue a current President of the United States for just anything. For the most part, they are immune from liability in a personal capacity when acting within their executive power or when completing official acts.

You can sue a former or current president for criminal charges that occurred while they were in office, whether the acts were official or unofficial. This happened in 2020 when former President Donald Trump was denied absolute immunity for a state criminal subpoena.

Before or after someone becomes president, they are subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society.

Process for Suing a President

Which process you would take depends largely on your allegations.

The Federal Tort Claims Act sets the process and rules for suing the government. The statute of limitations on most government claims is typically two years. So, you need to submit your claim within two years of the situation. Once you submit your claim to the proper agency, the government has six months to act.

If you are trying to file a personal claim against a president, you will need the help of a civil litigation attorney.

History of Lawsuits Against a Sitting President

There is a long history of lawsuits against presidents. Some come to fruition, while others are refused a Supreme Court hearing.

Two cases have set much of today's precedent for presidential lawsuits:

  • In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), A. Earnest Fitzgerald brought a lawsuit against several government officials, including President Richard Nixon. The Supreme Court decided that presidents are not immune to criminal charges while in office.
  • The Supreme Court heard Clinton v. Jones (1997), which determined that a sitting president could not be sued in a civil suit for official actions until the conclusion of their term. This gave President Bill Clinton temporary immunity (though the case was able to start pre-trial discovery). When he left office, Paula Jones continued the sexual harassment lawsuit.

Lawsuits can also be used to stop a president-elect. In President Obama's case, a 2009 lawsuit was filed in federal court claiming his ineligibility to be president.

Notable recent examples include President Trump being sued under the emoluments clause of the constitution, defamation, sexual harassment, and anti-abortion policies.

Lawsuits and Subpoenas Against the President

Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled that:

  • Separation of powers does not mean private civil lawsuits are delayed until the end of a presidential term. Lawsuits can be brought against a sitting president. In some cases, they can start pre-trial before a presidential term ends.
  • Presidential immunity can apply if the president shows a lawsuit interferes with their duties outlined in the Constitution. If a trial would be too distracting for a current president, the case can be delayed until their term ends.
  • Constitutional arguments for or against a subpoena disappear when a president's term ends.
  • Presidents can be prosecuted, and they must comply with any subpoenas once they leave the office.

These laws could change in the future. But for now, they govern the lawsuits brought against any sitting president.

Lawsuits Against a President vs. Impeachment

Congress can choose to impeach a president whether a lawsuit is involved or not. While it is common for impeachment to follow a lawsuit, a lawsuit does not need to occur. To date, there have been four impeachment inquiries:

  • Andrew Johnson: Charged for violating the Tenure of Office Act but not removed from office. The impeachment was not tied to a particular lawsuit
  • Richard Nixon: Charged with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress but not removed from office. Nixon resigned. The impeachment was not tied to a particular lawsuit
  • Bill Clinton: Charged with perjury to a grand jury and obstructing justice but not removed from office. This case was tied to a lawsuit
  • Donald Trump: Charged with obstruction of justice and abuse of power but not removed from office. The impeachment was not tied to a particular lawsuit

No one has been removed from the office of the president due to a lawsuit or impeachment. However, these can contribute to a president resigning or not running for a second term.

Can a Current President Sue Someone?

The same rules would apply if a lawsuit interfered with a president's day-to-day job. If a president felt strongly about suing someone (such as when the Enquirer made libelous statements about President Bush), the case might be delayed until they were out of office.

The courts would likely be unsympathetic if a president brought a lawsuit against a person but later asked for a trial to wait until they left office. Extended stays of action and case scheduling can be arranged to keep a current president focused on their job. But it is uncommon for a president to sue someone while in office.

Notable Cases and Court Decisions Involving Presidential Immunity

Clinton v. Jones

The most notable case that created a precedent for presidential immunity is the Supreme Court Case of Clinton v. Jones (1997). In this case, Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, sued President Clinton for sexual harassment that allegedly occurred before he took office as president. President Clinton's legal team argued that a sitting president should be immune from civil lawsuits. The Court ruled that a sitting president could be subject to a civil lawsuit related to alleged misconduct before taking office.

Zervos v. Trump

Another notable case involving presidential immunity is Zervos v. Trump. Zervos brought this defamation lawsuit against Trump in New York State court. Summer Zervos was a former contestant on Donald Trump's reality TV show “The Apprentice." Zervos accused Trump of sexual misconduct during his 2016 presidential campaign. Zervos claimed that Trump had defamed her by calling her a liar when she spoke about these allegations.

This case sparked tensions between two things. The first was the president's immunity from civil lawsuits while in office. The second was the principle that no one, even federal officials in the White House, is above the law. The case went through various legal proceedings, including a court filing by Trump's lawyers to have the case dismissed. Notably, the contracts Trump had contestants sign on “The Apprentice" contained arbitration clauses. The arbitration clause requires disputes to be resolved through arbitration rather than in court. Zervos's team argued that this clause did not stop her from pursuing a defamation claim in state courts.

Trump's legal defense team argued that a sitting president should not be subject to civil lawsuits. They argued it would interfere with their ability to carry out their presidential duties. His team cited the Supremacy Clause. The Supremacy Clause establishes that federal law is the supreme law of the land. They also argued that state court proceedings should not interfere with a president's official responsibilities.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo asserting that a sitting president cannot undergo criminal prosecution while in office.

Do You Want to Sue the President?

Due to freedom of speech rights, the media reports on all lawsuits filed against a president. Whether a case leads to impeachment, delayed action, or the claim is dropped altogether, the people have a right to know about it.

You can bring a lawsuit against the president with the legal advice of an attorney. Finding one to take the case can be difficult without ironclad evidence. Criminal charges can be brought at any time, but civil cases will typically need to wait until the president's term ends.

An attorney can help you understand the correct party to sue to get the best chance at recovering damages.

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