Galactic Hot Dogs
History and GovernmentSupreme CourtCases

Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982)

Case Summary

A. Ernest Fitzgerald claimed that he lost his employment with the Air Force because he gave testimony before Congress that was critical of his employer. He tried to add President Nixon as a defendant in his suit, but Nixon argued that a President cannot be sued for actions taken while in office. The trial and appellate court rejected the President's claim of immunity, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the President is entitled to absolute immunity from liability for damages based on his official acts.

Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority. He noted that the Court had never before ruled on the scope of presidential immunity. Many public officials have a limited, or “qualified,” immunity that applies so long as they have acted in “good faith.” Some other officials, such as judges and prosecutors, have been given an unlimited, or “absolute,” immunity because of the special nature of their duties. Giving the President only qualified immunity, Justice Powell argued, would make his actions subject to review by the judicial branch and might compromise the separation of powers. Lawsuits could distract the President from his official duties. The scope of the President's authority and responsibility is so broad that it is not realistic to restrict his immunity. Powell wrote that determining “good faith” would mean that the President's motivations would have to be examined in each case, which would be highly intrusive.

Justice Byron White's dissent argued that the majority's rule was too broad. Under it, a President could “deliberately cause serious injury to any number of citizens even though he knows his conduct violates a statute or tramples on the constitutional rights of those who are injured.”

More on the Case

The Supreme Court revisited presidential immunity in Clinton v. Jones, 1997. Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton while he was President of the United States, accusing him of sexual misconduct when he was Governor of Arkansas. Clinton argued that the case should be dismissed, because the President has absolute immunity from suit.

The Supreme Court noted that Nixon v. Fitzgerald gave the President “absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts,” but did not extend this immunity to actions that were clearly outside the scope of his presidential duties. The major rationale of Fitzgerald was to remove the possibility that the threat of litigation would make the President “unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties.” Jones's allegations involved acts that allegedly occurred before Clinton became President, so Fitzgerald's reasoning did not apply and Jones should be allowed to bring her case.

Finally, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the trial court judge would have the discretion to schedule the various aspects of the case to minimize disruption of the President's official duties. The Court ruled that it is not appropriate, however, to automatically require the plaintiff to wait until the end of the President's term in office.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Teens and E-Cigarettes: 6 Things You Must Know
For the first time in a generation, tobacco use has risen among the nation's youth, due to the rising use of e-cigarettes. Learn more about the dangerous and addictive e-cigarette trend, and get tips to talk to your teen.

Find Today's Newest & Best Children's Books!
Looking for newly released books for your child? Try our new Book Finder tool to search for new books by age, type, and theme, brought to you by Galactic Hot Dogs.

Printable Lists of the Top 100 Baby Names
Need help with baby name ideas? Use our printable list of the top 100 girl names and top 100 boy names of 2015 to help you brainstorm and narrow down your favorites.

Registered for Kindergarten — Now What?
Wondering what to do now that you've signed your child up for kindergarten? Try our award-winning Kindergarten Readiness app! This easy-to-use checklist comes with games and activities to help your child build essential skills for kindergarten. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Facebook icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks