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Top 5 Lawsuits That Affected the Office of Presidency

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Updated by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Presidents Day, officially known as Washington's Birthday under federal law, is a time to honor our nation's chief executives. There have been 45 presidents to date, and many have faced lawsuits before, during, and after their terms of office.

We'll focus here on lawsuits that don't just name the current president as a party (of which there are many) but instead on the biggest lawsuits that affected presidential power, the separation of powers, and presidential immunity. These decisions not only involved U.S. Presidents, but they also helped shape the very office itself.

  1. Marbury v. Madison (1803). Future U.S. President James Madison was sued while he was still Secretary of State over the appointment of a government official. It is a complicated case, but essentially the man's claim was denied because the law that allowed him to sue was held unconstitutional — the first time the Supreme Court ever did so. While Marbury was named in the suit, it was really a dispute between our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the power of the Supreme Court. As it helped set up judicial review, it is perhaps one of the most important cases in U.S. history.
  2. Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982). An Air Force analyst fired by President Richard Nixon sued him for damages after a government commission determined his firing was unjust. The 5-4 Supreme Court decision held the president is entitled to absolute immunity from damage suits based on official presidential acts. However, the caveat about official acts is important, as we can see in the next case.
  3. Clinton v. Jones (1996). The issue of absolute immunity arose again when an Arkansas woman sued President Bill Clinton in a civil lawsuit alleging "abhorrent" sexual advances by Clinton when he was Arkansas' governor. This case was different from Nixon v. Fitzgerald in that it involved acts not undertaken in an official capacity as president. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held a sitting president is not immune from civil suits, except in highly unusual situations. The ruling eventually led to President Clinton's impeachment three days before Presidents Day, in 1999.
  4. Bush v. Gore (2000). The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in this case effectively named President George W. Bush the winner of the 2000 election over then-Vice President Al Gore. The case challenged Florida's process for recounting votes as being unconstitutional. Despite inconsistent recount standards, the majority held there wasn't enough time to devise a proper statewide recount. The holding is limited, however, to only the Bush v. Gore dispute. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor later admitted to being the one who required that it was a non-precedential opinion before she would sign her name to it. But it still set an unofficial precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court becoming a key factor in questions over contentious election law matters even at the state level.
  5. United States of America v. Trump (2024). This one is cheating a little bit since there are ongoing issues to resolve, but the legal battles involving former President Trump are undoubtedly important to the powers of the presidency and worth including in this list. There are two potentially important cases here. The one over eligibility under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment is perhaps more well-known, but we'll go with the other one involving presidential immunity. Recently, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that presidents do not have immunity from criminal prosecution, which is in line with how the Supreme Court avoided absolute civil immunity for a president in Clinton v. Jones. The Supreme Court will soon have to decide (even if only by leaving the D.C. Circuit Court's opinion untouched) on immunity from criminal prosecution. If the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision is upheld, it would be another check on presidential power.

What do you think? Are these the most important lawsuits involving presidents, or did we miss one? Feel free to let us know. Otherwise, have a great Presidents Day!

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