Nixon v. Fitzgerald
457 U.S. 731 (1982)
[Majority: Powell, Stevens, Burger (C.J.), Rehnquist and O’Connor. Concurring: Burger (C.J.). Dissenting: White, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun.]
Justice Powell delivered the opinion of the Court.
The plaintiff in this lawsuit seeks relief in civil damages from a former President of the United States. The claim rests on actions allegedly taken in the former President’s official capacity during his tenure in office. The issue before us is the scope of the [civil] immunity possessed by the President of the United States.
- [During the waning months of the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, Fitzgerald, a management analyst with the Department of the Air Force, testified before a congressional Subcommittee about cost overruns and unexpected technical difficulties concerning the development of a particular airplane. In January 1970, during the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Fitzgerald was dismissed from his job during a departmental reorganization and reduction in force, in which his job was eliminated. At one point, Nixon told a press conference that he was responsible for the dismissal, although he later said he was not, but had confused Fitzgerald with someone else. Fitzgerald complained to the Civil Service Commission, alleging that his separation represented unlawful retaliation for his congressional testimony. The Commission rejected this claim, but concluded that Fitzgerald’s dismissal offended applicable regulations because it was motivated by “reasons purely personal to” respondent. Fitzgerald thereafter filed suit. After earlier judicial rulings and extensive pretrial discovery, only three defendants were involved: Nixon and two White House aides (petitioners in –Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982)).] . . .
III-A. . . . In Scheuer v. Rhodes (1974), the Court considered the immunity available to state executive officials in a § 1983 suit alleging the violation of constitutional rights. In that case we rejected the officials’ claim to absolute immunity under the doctrine of Spalding v. Vilas (1896), finding instead that state executive officials possessed a “good faith” immunity from § 1983 suits alleging constitutional violations. Balancing the purposes of § 1983 against the imperatives of public policy, the Court held that “in varying scope, a qualified immunity is available to officers of the executive branch of government, the variation being dependent upon the scope of discretion and responsibilities of the office and all the circumstances as they reasonably appeared at the time of the action on which liability is sought to be based.”
As construed by subsequent cases, Scheuer established a two-tiered division of immunity defenses in § 1983 suits. To most executive officers Scheuer accorded qualified immunity. For them the scope of the defense varied in proportion to the nature of their official functions and the range of decisions that conceivably might be taken in “good faith.” This “functional” approach also defined a second tier, however, at which the especially sensitive duties of certain officials — notably judges and prosecutors — required the continued recognition of absolute immunity. . . .
This approach was reviewed in detail in Butz v. Economou (1978), when we considered for the first time the kind of immunity possessed by federal executive officials who are sued for constitutional violations. In Butz the Court rejected an argument, based on decisions involving federal officials charged with common-law torts, that all high federal officials have a right to absolute immunity from constitutional damages actions. Concluding that a blanket recognition of absolute immunity would be anomalous in light of the qualified immunity standard applied to state executive officials, we held that federal officials generally have the same qualified immunity possessed by state officials in cases under § 1983. In so doing we reaffirmed our holdings that some officials, notably judges and prosecutors, “because of the special nature of their responsibilities,” “require a full exemption from liability.” . . .
III-B. Our decisions concerning the immunity of government officials from civil damages liability have been guided by the Constitution, federal statutes, and history. Additionally, at least in the absence of explicit constitutional or congressional guidance, our immunity decisions have been informed by the common law. This Court necessarily also has weighed concerns of public policy, especially as illuminated by our history and the structure of our government.
This case now presents the claim that the President of the United States is shielded by absolute immunity from civil damages liability. In the case of the President the inquiries into history and policy, though mandated independently by our cases, tend to converge. Because the Presidency did not exist through most of the development of common law, any historical analysis must draw its evidence primarily from our constitutional heritage and structure. Historical inquiry thus merges almost at its inception with the kind of “public policy” analysis appropriately undertaken by a federal court. This inquiry involves policies and principles that may be considered implicit in the nature of the President’s office in a system structured to achieve effective government under a constitutionally mandated separation of powers.
- Here a former President asserts his immunity from civil damages claims of two kinds. He stands named as a defendant in a direct action under the Constitution and in two statutory actions under federal laws of general applicability. . . .
Applying the principles of our cases to claims of this kind, we hold that petitioner, as a former President of the United States, is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts. We consider this immunity a functionally mandated incident of the President’s unique office, rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history. Justice Story’s analysis remains persuasive:
There are . . . incidental powers, belonging to the executive department, which are necessarily implied from the nature of the functions, which are confided to it. Among these, must necessarily be included the power to perform them. . . . The president cannot, therefore, be liable to arrest, imprisonment, or detention, while he is in the discharge of the duties of his office; and for this purpose his person must be deemed, in civil cases at least, to possess an official inviolability. 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 1563, pp. 418–19 (1st ed. 1833).
IV-A. The President occupies a unique position in the constitutional scheme. Article II, § 1, of the Constitution provides that “[t]he executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States. . . .” This grant of authority establishes the President as the chief constitutional officer of the Executive Branch, entrusted with supervisory and policy responsibilities of utmost discretion and sensitivity. These include the enforcement of federal law — it is the President who is charged constitutionally to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” [Art. II, § 3]; the conduct of foreign affairs — a realm in which the Court has recognized that “[i]t would be intolerable that courts, without the relevant information, should review and perhaps nullify actions of the Executive taken on information properly held secret;” and management of the Executive Branch — a task for which “imperative reasons requir[e] an unrestricted power [in the President] to remove the most important of his subordinates in their most important duties.”
In arguing that the President is entitled only to qualified immunity, the respondent relies on cases in which we have recognized immunity of this scope for governors and cabinet officers. We find these cases to be inapposite. The President’s unique status under the Constitution distinguishes him from other executive officials.
Because of the singular importance of the President’s duties, diversion of his energies by concern with private lawsuits would raise unique risks to the effective functioning of government. As is the case with prosecutors and judges — for whom absolute immunity now is established — a President must concern himself with matters likely to “arouse the most intense feelings.” Yet, as our decisions have recognized, it is in precisely such cases that there exists the greatest public interest in providing an official “the maximum ability to deal fearlessly and impartially with” the duties of his office. This concern is compelling where the officeholder must make the most sensitive and far-reaching decisions entrusted to any official under our constitutional system. Nor can the sheer prominence of the President’s office be ignored. In view of the visibility of his office and the effect of his actions on countless people, the President would be an easily identifiable target for suits for civil damages. Cognizance of this personal vulnerability frequently could distract a President from his public duties, to the detriment of not only the President and his office but also the Nation that the Presidency was designed to serve.
IV-B. Courts traditionally have recognized the President’s constitutional responsibilities and status as factors counseling judicial deference and restraint. For example, while courts generally have looked to the common law to determine the scope of an official’s evidentiary privilege, we have recognized that the Presidential privilege is “rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.” United States v. Nixon (1974). It is settled law that the separation-of-powers doctrine does not bar every exercise of jurisdiction over the President of the United States. But our cases also have established that a court, before exercising jurisdiction, must balance the constitutional weight of the interest to be served against the dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch. When judicial action is needed to serve broad public interests — as when the Court acts, not in derogation of the separation of powers, but to maintain their proper balance, cf. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), or to vindicate the public interest in an ongoing criminal prosecution, see United States v. Nixon — the exercise of jurisdiction has been held warranted. In the case of this merely private suit for damages based on a President’s official acts, we hold it is not.
IV-C. In defining the scope of an official’s absolute privilege, this Court has recognized that the sphere of protected action must be related closely to the immunity’s justifying purposes. Frequently our decisions have held that an official’s absolute immunity should extend only to acts in performance of particular functions of his office. But the Court also has refused to draw functional lines finer than history and reason would support. . . . In view of the special nature of the President’s constitutional office and functions, we think it appropriate to recognize absolute Presidential immunity from damages liability for acts within the “outer perimeter” of his official responsibility.
Under the Constitution and laws of the United States the President has discretionary responsibilities in a broad variety of areas, many of them highly sensitive. In many cases it would be difficult to determine which of the President’s innumerable “functions” encompassed a particular action. . . .
This construction would subject the President to trial on virtually every allegation that an action was unlawful, or was taken for a forbidden purpose. Adoption of this construction thus would deprive absolute immunity of its intended effect. It clearly is within the President’s constitutional and statutory authority to prescribe the manner in which the Secretary will conduct the business of the Air Force. Because this mandate of office must include the authority to prescribe reorganizations and reductions in force, we conclude that petitioner’s alleged wrongful acts lay well within the outer perimeter of his authority.
- A rule of absolute immunity for the President will not leave the Nation without sufficient protection against misconduct on the part of the Chief Executive. There remains the constitutional remedy of impeachment. In addition, there are formal and informal checks on Presidential action that do not apply with equal force to other executive officials. The President is subjected to constant scrutiny by the press. Vigilant oversight by Congress also may serve to deter Presidential abuses of office, as well as to make credible the threat of impeachment. Other incentives to avoid misconduct may include a desire to earn reelection, the need to maintain prestige as an element of Presidential influence, and a President’s traditional concern for his historical stature.
The existence of alternative remedies and deterrents establishes that absolute immunity will not place the President “above the law.” For the President, as for judges and prosecutors, absolute immunity merely precludes a particular private remedy for alleged misconduct in order to advance compelling public ends. . . .
Chief Justice Burger, concurring.[Omitted.]
Justice White, with whom Justice Brennan, Justice Marshall, and Justice Blackmun join, dissenting.
The four dissenting Members of the Court in Butz v. Economou (1978), argued that all federal officials are entitled to absolute immunity from suit for any action they take in connection with their official duties. That immunity would extend even to actions taken with express knowledge that the conduct was clearly contrary to the controlling statute or clearly violative of the Constitution. Fortunately, the majority of the Court rejected that approach: We held that although public officials perform certain functions that entitle them to absolute immunity, the immunity attaches to particular functions — not to particular offices. Officials performing functions for which immunity is not absolute enjoy qualified immunity; they are liable in damages only if their conduct violated well-established law and if they should have realized that their conduct was illegal.
The Court now applies the dissenting view in Butz to the Office of the President: A President, acting within the outer boundaries of what Presidents normally do, may, without liability, 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. Even if the President in this case ordered Fitzgerald fired by means of a trumped-up reduction in force, knowing that such a discharge was contrary to the civil service laws, he would be absolutely immune from suit. By the same token, if a President, without following the statutory procedures which he knows apply to himself as well as to other federal officials, orders his subordinates to wiretap or break into a home for the purpose of installing a listening device, and the officers comply with his request, the President would be absolutely immune from suit. He would be immune regardless of the damage he inflicts, regardless of how violative of the statute and of the Constitution he knew his conduct to be, and regardless of his purpose.
The Court intimates that its decision is grounded in the Constitution. If that is the case, Congress cannot provide a remedy against Presidential misconduct and the criminal laws of the United States are wholly inapplicable to the President. I find this approach completely unacceptable. I do not agree that if the Office of President is to operate effectively, the holder of that Office must be permitted, without fear of liability and regardless of the function he is performing, deliberately to inflict injury on others by conduct that he knows violates the law.
We have not taken such a scatter-gun approach in other cases. Butz held that absolute immunity did not attach to the office held by a member of the President’s Cabinet but only to those specific functions performed by that officer for which absolute immunity is clearly essential. Members of Congress are absolutely immune under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, but the immunity extends only to their legislative acts. We have never held that in order for legislative work to be done, it is necessary to immunize all of the tasks that legislators must perform. Constitutional immunity does not extend to those many things that Senators and Representatives regularly and necessarily do that are not legislative acts. Members of Congress, for example, repeatedly importune the executive branch and administrative agencies outside hearing rooms and legislative halls, but they are not immune if in connection with such activity they deliberately violate the law. Neither is a Member of Congress or his aide immune from damages suits if in order to secure information deemed relevant to a legislative investigation, he breaks into a house and carries away records. Judges are absolutely immune from liability for damages, but only when performing a judicial function, and even then they are subject to criminal liability. The absolute immunity of prosecutors is likewise limited to the prosecutorial function. A prosecutor who directs that an investigation be carried out in a way that is patently illegal is not immune.
In Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Court, speaking through the Chief Justice, observed that while there were “important political powers” committed to the President for the performance of which neither he nor his appointees were accountable in court, “the question, whether the legality of an act of the head of a department be examinable in a court of justice or not, must always depend on the nature of that act.” The Court nevertheless refuses to follow this course with respect to the President. It makes no effort to distinguish categories of Presidential conduct that should be absolutely immune from other categories of conduct that should not qualify for that level of immunity. The Court instead concludes that whatever the President does and however contrary to law he knows his conduct to be, he may, without fear of liability, injure federal employees or any other person within or without the Government.
Attaching absolute immunity to the Office of the President, rather than to particular activities that the President might perform, places the President above the law. It is a reversion to the old notion that the King can do no wrong. Until now, this concept had survived in this country only in the form of sovereign immunity. That doctrine forecloses suit against the Government itself and against Government officials, but only when the suit against the latter actually seeks relief against the sovereign. Suit against an officer, however, may be maintained where it seeks specific relief against him for conduct contrary to his statutory authority or to the Constitution. Now, however, the Court clothes the Office of the President with sovereign immunity, placing it beyond the law.
In Marbury v. Madison, the Chief Justice, speaking for the Court, observed: “The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.” Until now, the Court has consistently adhered to this proposition. In Scheuer v. Rhodes (1974), a unanimous Court held that the Governor of a State was entitled only to a qualified immunity. We reached this position, even though we recognized that
[i]n the case of higher officers of the executive branch . . . the inquiry is far more complex since the range of decisions and choices — whether the formulation of policy, of legislation, of budgets, or of day-to-day decisions — is virtually infinite. . . . In short, since the options which a chief executive and his principal subordinates must consider are far broader and far more subtle than those made by officials with less responsibility, the range of discretion must be comparably broad. . . .
Unfortunately, the Court now abandons basic principles that have been powerful guides to decision. It is particularly unfortunate since the judgment in this case has few, if any, indicia of a judicial decision; it is almost wholly a policy choice, a choice that is without substantial support and that in all events is ambiguous in its reach and import. . . .
The decisions dealing with the immunity of state officers involve the question of whether and to what extent Congress intended to abolish the common-law privileges by providing a remedy in the predecessor of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations by state officials. Our decisions respecting immunity for federal officials — including absolute immunity for judges, prosecutors, and those officials doing similar work — also in large part reflect common-law views, as well as judicial conclusions as to what privileges are necessary if particular functions are to be performed in the public interest.
Unfortunately, there is little of this approach in the Court’s decision today. The Court casually, but candidly, abandons the functional approach to immunity that has run through all of our decisions. Indeed, the majority turns this rule on its head by declaring that because the functions of the President’s office are so varied and diverse and some of them so profoundly important, the office is unique and must be clothed with officewide, absolute immunity. This is policy, not law, and in my view, very poor policy.
- In declaring the President to be absolutely immune from suit for any deliberate and knowing violation of the Constitution or of a federal statute, the Court asserts that the immunity is “rooted in the constitutional tradition of the separation of powers and supported by our history.” The decision thus has all the earmarks of a constitutional pronouncement — absolute immunity for the President’s office is mandated by the Constitution. Although the Court appears to disclaim this, it is difficult to read the opinion coherently as standing for any narrower proposition: Attempts to subject the President to liability either by Congress through a statutory action or by the courts through a Bivens (Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents (1971)) proceeding would violate the separation of powers. Such a generalized absolute immunity cannot be sustained when examined in the traditional manner and in light of the traditional judicial sources.
The petitioner and the United States, as amicus, rely principally on two arguments to support the claim of absolute immunity for the President from civil liability: absolute immunity is an “incidental power” of the Presidency, historically recognized as implicit in the Constitution, and absolute immunity is required by the separation-of-powers doctrine. I will address each of these contentions.
I-A. The Speech or Debate Clause, Art. I, § 6, guarantees absolute immunity to Members of Congress; nowhere, however, does the Constitution directly address the issue of Presidential immunity. Petitioner nevertheless argues that the debates at the Constitutional Convention and the early history of constitutional interpretation demonstrate an implicit assumption of absolute Presidential immunity. In support of this position, petitioner relies primarily on three separate items: First, preratification remarks made during the discussion of Presidential impeachment at the Convention and in The Federalist; second, remarks made during the meeting of the first Senate; and third, the views of Justice Story.
The debate at the Convention on whether or not the President should be impeachable did touch on the potential dangers of subjecting the President to the control of another branch, the Legislature. Gouverneur Morris, for example, complained of the potential for dependency and argued that “[the President] can do no criminal act without Coadjutors who may be punished. In case he should be re-elected, that will be sufficient proof of his innocence.” Colonel Mason responded to this by asking if “any man [shall] be above Justice” and argued that this was least appropriate for the man “who can commit the most extensive injustice.” Madison agreed that “it [is] indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” Pinckney responded on the other side, believing that if granted the power, the Legislature would hold impeachment “as a rod over the Executive and by that means effectually destroy his independence.”
Petitioner concludes from this that the delegates meant impeachment to be the exclusive means of holding the President personally responsible for his misdeeds, outside of electoral politics. This conclusion, however, is hardly supported by the debate. Although some of the delegates expressed concern over limiting Presidential independence, the delegates voted 8 to 2 in favor of impeachment. Whatever the fear of subjecting the President to the power of another branch, it was not sufficient, or at least not sufficiently shared, to insulate the President from political liability in the impeachment process.
Moreover, the Convention debate did not focus on wrongs the President might commit against individuals, but rather on whether there should be a method of holding him accountable for what might be termed wrongs against the state. Thus, examples of the abuses that concerned delegates were betrayal, oppression, and bribery; the delegates feared that the alternative to an impeachment mechanism would be “tumults & insurrections” by the people in response to such abuses. 2 Farrand 67. The only conclusions that can be drawn from this debate are that the independence of the Executive was not understood to require a total lack of accountability to the other branches and that there was no general desire to insulate the President from the consequences of his improper acts.
Much the same can be said in response to petitioner’s reliance on The Federalist No. 77. In that essay, Hamilton asked whether the Presidency combines “the requisites to safety in the republican sense — a due dependence on the people — a due responsibility.” The Federalist No. 77. He answered that the constitutional plan met this test because it subjected the President to both the electoral process and the possibility of impeachment, including subsequent criminal prosecution. Petitioner concludes from this that these were intended to be the exclusive means of restraining Presidential abuses. This, by no means follows. Hamilton was concerned in The Federalist No. 77, as were the delegates at the Convention, with the larger political abuses — “wrongs against the state” — that a President might commit. He did not consider what legal means might be available for redress of individualized grievances.
That omission should not be taken to imply exclusion in these circumstances is well illustrated by comparing some of the remarks made in the state ratifying conventions with Hamilton’s discussion in No. 77. In the North Carolina ratifying convention, for example, there was a discussion of the adequacy of the impeachment mechanism for holding executive officers accountable for their misdeeds. Governor Johnson defended the constitutional plan by distinguishing three legal mechanisms of accountability:
If an officer commits an offence against an individual, he is amenable to the courts of law. If he commits crimes against the state, he may be indicted and punished. Impeachment only extends to high crimes and misdemeanors in a public office. It is a mode of trial pointed out for great misdemeanors against the public.
Governor Johnson surely did not contemplate that the availability of an impeachment mechanism necessarily implied the exclusion of other forms of legal accountability; rather, the method of accountability was to be a function of the character of the wrong. Mr. Maclaine, another delegate to the North Carolina Convention, clearly believed that the courts would remain open to individual citizens seeking redress from injuries caused by Presidential acts:
The President is the superior officer, who is to see the laws put in execution. He is amenable for any maladministration in his office. Were it possible to suppose that the President should give wrong instructions to his deputies, whereby the citizens would be distressed, they would have redress in the ordinary courts of common law.
A similar distinction between different possible forms of Presidential accountability was drawn by Mr. Wilson at the Pennsylvania ratifying convention: “[The President] is placed high, and is possessed of power far from being contemptible; yet not a single privilege is annexed to his character; far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.”
There is no more reason to respect the views of Hamilton than those of Wilson: both were members of the Constitutional Convention; both were instrumental in securing the ratification of the Constitution. But more importantly, there is simply no express contradiction in their statements. Petitioner relies on an inference drawn from silence to create this contradiction. The surrounding history simply does not support this inference.
The second piece of historical evidence cited by petitioner is an exchange at the first meeting of the Senate, involving Vice President Adams and Senators Ellsworth and Maclay. The debate started over whether or not the words “the President” should be included at the beginning of federal writs, similar to the manner in which English writs ran in the King’s name. Senator Maclay thought that this would improperly combine the executive and judicial branches. This, in turn, led to a discussion of the proper relation between the two. Senator Ellsworth and Vice President Adams defended the proposition that
the President, personally, was not subject to any process whatever; could have no action, whatever, brought against him; was above the power of all judges, justices, &c. For [that] would . . . put it in the power of a common justice to exercise any authority over him, and stop the whole machine of government.
In their view the impeachment process was the exclusive form of process available against the President. Senator Maclay ardently opposed this view and put the case of a President committing “murder in the street.” In his view, in such a case neither impeachment nor resurrection were the exclusive means of holding the President to the law; rather, there was “loyal justice.” Senator Maclay, who recorded the exchange, concludes his notes with the remark that none of this “is worth minuting, but it shows clearly how amazingly fond of the old leaven many people are.” In his view, Senator Ellsworth and his supporters had not fully comprehended the difference in the political position of the American President and that of the British Monarch. Again, nothing more can be concluded from this than that the proper scope of Presidential accountability, including the question whether the President should be subject to judicial process, was no clearer then than it is now.
The final item cited by petitioner clearly supports his position, but is of such late date that it contributes little to understanding the original intent. In his Commentaries on the Constitution, published in 1833, Justice Story described the “incidental powers” of the President:
Among these must necessarily be included the power to perform [his functions] without any obstruction or impediment whatsoever. The President cannot, therefore, be liable to arrest, imprisonment, or detention, while he is in the discharge of the duties of his office; and for this purpose his person must be deemed, in civil cases at least, to possess an official inviolability. In the exercise of his political powers he is to use his own discretion, and he is accountable only to his country and to his own conscience. His decision in relation to these powers is subject to no control, and his discretion, when exercised, is conclusive.
While Justice Story may have been firmly committed to this view in 1833, Senator Pinckney, a delegate to the Convention, was as firmly committed to the opposite view in 1800.
Senator Pinckney, arguing on the floor of the Senate, contrasted the privileges extended to Members of Congress by the Constitution with the lack of any such privileges extended to the President. He argued that this was a deliberate choice of the delegates to the Convention, who “well knew how oppressively the power of undefined privileges had been exercised in Great Britain, and were determined no such authority should ever be exercised here.” 10 Annals of Cong. 72 (1800). Therefore, “[n]o privilege of this kind was intended for your Executive, nor any except that . . . for your Legislature.” Id., at 74.
In previous immunity cases the Court has emphasized the importance of the immunity afforded the particular government official at common law. Clearly this sort of analysis is not possible when dealing with an office, the Presidency, that did not exist at common law. To the extent that historical inquiry is appropriate in this context, it is constitutional history, not common law, that is relevant. From the history discussed above, however, all that can be concluded is that absolute immunity from civil liability for the President finds no support in constitutional text or history, or in the explanations of the earliest commentators. . . .
- B. . . . We said in Butz v. Economou (1978), that “it is not unfair to hold liable the official who knows or should know he is acting outside the law, and . . . insisting on an awareness of clearly established constitutional limits will not unduly interfere with the exercise of official judgment.” Today’s decision in Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982) makes clear that the President, were he subject to civil liability, could be held liable only for an action that he knew, or as an objective matter should have known, was illegal and a clear abuse of his authority and power. In such circumstances, the question that must be answered is who should bear the cost of the resulting injury — the wrongdoer or the victim.
The principle that should guide the Court in deciding this question was stated long ago by Chief Justice Marshall: “The very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, whenever he receives an injury.” Marbury v. Madison. Much more recently, the Court considered the role of a damages remedy in the performance of the courts’ traditional function of enforcing federally guaranteed rights: “Historically, damages have been regarded as the ordinary remedy for an invasion of personal interests in liberty.” Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents. To the extent that the Court denies an otherwise appropriate remedy, it denies the victim the right to be made whole and, therefore, denies him “the protection of the laws.”
That the President should have the same remedial obligations toward those whom he injures as any other federal officer is not a surprising proposition. The fairness of the remedial principle the Court has so far followed — that the wrongdoer, not the victim, should ordinarily bear the costs of the injury — has been found to be outweighed only in instances where potential liability is “thought to injure the governmental decisionmaking process.” The argument for immunity is that the possibility of a damages action will, or at least should, have an effect on the performance of official responsibilities. That effect should be to deter unconstitutional, or otherwise illegal, behavior. This may, however, lead officers to be more careful and “less vigorous” in the performance of their duties. Caution, of course, is not always a virtue and undue caution is to be avoided.
The possibility of liability may, in some circumstances, distract officials from the performance of their duties and influence the performance of those duties in ways adverse to the public interest. But when this “public policy” argument in favor of absolute immunity is cast in these broad terms, it applies to all officers, both state and federal: All officers should perform their responsibilities without regard to those personal interests threatened by the possibility of a lawsuit. Inevitably, this reduces the public policy argument to nothing more than an expression of judicial inclination as to which officers should be encouraged to perform their functions with “vigor,” although with less care.
The Court’s response, until today, to this problem has been to apply the argument to individual functions, not offices, and to evaluate the effect of liability on governmental decisionmaking within that function, in light of the substantive ends that are to be encouraged or discouraged. In this case, therefore, the Court should examine the functions implicated by the causes of action at issue here and the effect of potential liability on the performance of those functions.
- The functional approach to the separation-of-powers doctrine and the Court’s more recent immunity decisions converge on the following principle: The scope of immunity is determined by function, not office. The wholesale claim that the President is entitled to absolute immunity in all of his actions stands on no firmer ground than did the claim that all Presidential communications are entitled to an absolute privilege, which was rejected in favor of a functional analysis, by a unanimous Court in United States v. Nixon (1974). Therefore, whatever may be true of the necessity of such a broad immunity in certain areas of executive responsibility, the only question that must be answered here is whether the dismissal of employees falls within a constitutionally assigned executive function, the performance of which would be substantially impaired by the possibility of a private action for damages. I believe it does not.
Respondent has so far proceeded in this action on the basis of three separate causes of action: two federal statutes — 5 U.S.C. § 7211 and 18 U.S.C. § 1505 — and the 1st Amendment. At this point in the litigation, the availability of these causes of action is not before us. Assuming the correctness of the lower court’s determination that the two federal statutes create a private right of action, I find the suggestion that the President is immune from those causes of action to be unconvincing. The attempt to found such immunity upon a separation-of-powers argument is particularly unconvincing.
The first of these statutes, 5 U.S.C. § 7211, states that “[t]he right of employees . . . to . . . furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied.” The second, 18 U.S.C. § 1505, makes it a crime to obstruct congressional testimony. It does not take much insight to see that at least one purpose of these statutes is to assure congressional access to information in the possession of the Executive Branch, which Congress believes it requires in order to carry out its responsibilities. Insofar as these statutes implicate a separation-of-powers argument, I would think it to be just the opposite of that suggested by petitioner and accepted by the majority. In enacting these statutes, Congress sought to preserve its own constitutionally mandated functions in the face of a recalcitrant Executive. . . .
The argument that Congress, by providing a damages action under these statutes (as is assumed in this case), has adopted an unconstitutional means of furthering its ends, must rest on the premise that Presidential control of executive employment decisions is a constitutionally assigned Presidential function with which Congress may not significantly interfere. This is a frivolous contention. In United States v. Perkins (1886), this Court held that “when Congress, by law, vests the appointment of inferior officers in the heads of Departments it may limit and restrict the power of removal as it deems best for the public interest.” Whatever the rule may be with respect to high officers, see Humphrey’s Executor v. United States (1935), with respect to those who fill traditional bureaucratic positions, restrictions on executive authority are the rule and not the exception. This case itself demonstrates the severe statutory restraints under which the President operates in this area. . . .
Absolute immunity is appropriate when the threat of liability may bias the decisionmaker in ways that are adverse to the public interest. But as the various regulations and statutes protecting civil servants from arbitrary executive action illustrate, this is an area in which the public interest is demonstrably on the side of encouraging less “vigor” and more “caution” on the part of decisionmakers. . . .
In Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents we held that individuals who have suffered a compensable injury through a violation of the rights guaranteed them by the 4th Amendment may invoke the general federal-question jurisdiction of the federal courts in a suit for damages. That conclusion rested on two principles: First, “‘[t]he very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws,'” quoting Marbury v. Madison; second, “[h]istorically, damages have been regarded as the ordinary remedy for an invasion of personal interests in liberty.” In Butz v. Economou, we rejected the argument of the Federal Government that federal officers, including Cabinet officers, are absolutely immune from civil liability for such constitutional violations — a position that we recognized would substantially undercut our conclusion in Bivens. We held there that although the performance of certain limited functions will be protected by the shield of absolute immunity, the general rule is that federal officers, like state officers, have only a qualified immunity. Finally, in Davis v. Passman (1979), we held that a Congressman could be held liable for damages in a Bivens-type suit brought in federal court alleging a violation of individual rights guaranteed the plaintiff by the Due Process Clause. In my view, these cases have largely settled the issues raised by the Bivens problem here.
These cases established the following principles. First, it is not the exclusive prerogative of the Legislative Branch to create a federal cause of action for a constitutional violation. In the absence of adequate legislatively prescribed remedies, the general federal-question jurisdiction of the federal courts permits the courts to create remedies, both legal and equitable, appropriate to the character of the injury. Second, exercise of this “judicial” function does not create a separation-of-powers problem: We have held both executive and legislative officers subject to this judicially created cause of action and in each instance we have rejected separation-of-powers arguments. Holding federal officers liable for damages for constitutional injuries no more violates separation-of-powers principles than does imposing equitable remedies under the traditional function of judicial review. Third, federal officials will generally have a “qualified immunity” from such suits; absolute immunity will be extended to certain functions only on the basis of a showing that exposure to liability is inconsistent with the proper performance of the official’s duties and responsibilities. Finally, Congress retains the power to restrict exposure to liability, and the policy judgments implicit in this decision should properly be made by Congress.
The majority fails to recognize the force of what the Court has already done in this area. Under the above principles, the President could not claim that there are no circumstances under which he would be subject to a Bivens-type action for violating respondent’s constitutional rights. Rather, he must assert that the absence of absolute immunity will substantially impair his ability to carry out particular functions that are his constitutional responsibility. For the reasons I have presented above, I do not believe that this argument can be successfully made under the circumstances of this case.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that the President should be held to be absolutely immune because each of the functions for which he has constitutional responsibility would be substantially impaired by the possibility of civil liability. I do not think this argument is valid for the simple reason that the function involved here does not have this character. On which side of the line other Presidential functions would fall need not be decided in this case.
The majority opinion suggests a variant of this argument. It argues, not that every Presidential function has this character, but that distinguishing the particular functions involved in any given case would be “difficult.” Even if this were true, it would not necessarily follow that the President is entitled to absolute immunity. . . .
III. Because of the importance of this case, it is appropriate to examine the reasoning of the majority opinion. . . .
Focusing on the actual arguments the majority offers for its holding of absolute immunity for the President, one finds surprisingly little. As I read the relevant section of the Court’s opinion, I find just three contentions from which the majority draws this conclusion. Each of them is little more than a makeweight; together they hardly suffice to justify the wholesale disregard of our traditional approach to immunity questions.
First, the majority informs us that the President occupies a “unique position in the constitutional scheme,” including responsibilities for the administration of justice, foreign affairs, and management of the Executive Branch. True as this may be, it says nothing about why a “unique” rule of immunity should apply to the President. The President’s unique role may indeed encompass functions for which he is entitled to a claim of absolute immunity. It does not follow from that, however, that he is entitled to absolute immunity either in general or in this case in particular. . . .
Second, the majority contends that because the President’s “visibility” makes him particularly vulnerable to suits for civil damages, a rule of absolute immunity is required. The force of this argument is surely undercut by the majority’s admission that “there is no historical record of numerous suits against the President.” Even granting that a Bivens cause of action did not become available until 1971, in the 11 years since then there have been only a handful of suits. . . .
Finally, the Court suggests that potential liability “frequently could distract a President from his public duties.” Unless one assumes that the President himself makes the countless high-level executive decisions required in the administration of government, this rule will not do much to insulate such decisions from the threat of liability. The logic of the proposition cannot be limited to the President; its extension, however, has been uniformly rejected by this Court. See Butz v. Economou; Harlow v. Fitzgerald. . . .
- The majority may be correct in its conclusion that “[a] rule of absolute immunity . . . will not leave the Nation without sufficient protection against misconduct on the part of the Chief Executive.” Such a rule will, however, leave Mr. Fitzgerald without an adequate remedy for the harms that he may have suffered. More importantly, it will leave future plaintiffs without a remedy, regardless of the substantiality of their claims. The remedies in which the Court finds comfort were never designed to afford relief for individual harms. Rather, they were designed as political safety valves. Politics and history, however, are not the domain of the courts; the courts exist to assure each individual that he, as an individual, has enforceable rights that he may pursue to achieve a peaceful redress of his legitimate grievances.
I find it ironic, as well as tragic, that the Court would so casually discard its own role of assuring “the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws,” Marbury v. Madison, in the name of protecting the principle of separation of powers. Accordingly, I dissent.
Justice Blackmun, with whom Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall join, dissenting. [Omitted.]
. Although the Court in Butz v. Economou described the requisite inquiry as one of “public policy,” the focus of inquiry more accurately may be viewed in terms of the “inherent” or “structural” assumptions of our scheme of government.
. Noting that the Speech and Debate Clause provides a textual basis for congressional immunity, respondent argues that the Framers must be assumed to have rejected any similar grant of executive immunity. This argument is unpersuasive. First, a specific textual basis has not been considered a prerequisite to the recognition of immunity. No provision expressly confers judicial immunity. Yet the immunity of judges is well settled. Second, this Court already has established that absolute immunity may be extended to certain officials of the Executive Branch. [prosecutors.] Third, there is historical evidence from which it may be inferred that the Framers assumed the President’s immunity from damages liability. At the Constitutional Convention several delegates expressed concern that subjecting the President even to impeachment would impair his capacity to perform his duties of office. The delegates of course did agree to an Impeachment Clause. But nothing in their debates suggests an expectation that the President would be subjected to the distraction of suits by disappointed private citizens. And Senator Maclay has recorded the views of Senator Ellsworth and Vice President John Adams — both delegates to the Convention — that “the President, personally, was not the subject to any process whatever. . . . For [that] would . . . put it in the power of a common justice to exercise any authority over him and stop the whole machine of Government.” Journal of William Maclay 167 (E. Maclay ed. 1890). Justice Story, writing in 1833, held it implicit in the separation of powers that the President must be permitted to discharge his duties undistracted by private lawsuits. 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 1563, pp. 418–19 (1st ed. 1833). Thomas Jefferson also argued that the President was not intended to be subject to judicial process. When Chief Justice Marshall held in United States v. Burr (C.C.D. Va. 1807) that a subpoena duces tecum can be issued to a President, Jefferson protested strongly, and stated his broader view of the proper relationship between the Judiciary and the President:
The leading principle of our Constitution is the independence of the Legislature, executive and judiciary of each other, and none are more jealous of this than the judiciary. But would the executive be independent of the judiciary, if he were subject to the commands of the latter, & to imprisonment for disobedience; if the several courts could bandy him from pillar to post, keep him constantly trudging from north to south & east to west, and withdraw him entirely from his constitutional duties? The intention of the Constitution, that each branch should be independent of the others, is further manifested by the means it has furnished to each, to protect itself from enterprises of force attempted on them by the others, and to none has it given more effectual or diversified means than to the executive.
10 The Works of Thomas Jefferson 404 n. (P. Ford ed. 1905) (quoting a letter from President Jefferson to a prosecutor at the Burr trial).
In light of the fragmentary character of the most important materials reflecting the Framers’ intent, we do think that the most compelling arguments arise from the Constitution’s separation of powers and the Judiciary’s historic understanding of that doctrine. But our primary reliance on constitutional structure and judicial precedent should not be misunderstood. The best historical evidence clearly supports the Presidential immunity we have upheld. Justice White’s dissent cites some other materials, including ambiguous comments made at state ratifying conventions and the remarks of a single publicist. But historical evidence must be weighed as well as cited. When the weight of evidence is considered, we think we must place our reliance on the contemporary understanding of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Oliver Ellsworth. Other powerful support derives from the actual history of private lawsuits against the President. Prior to the litigation explosion commencing with this Court’s 1971 Bivens decision, fewer than a handful of damages actions ever were filed against the President. None appears to have proceeded to judgment on the merits.
. Among the most persuasive reasons supporting official immunity is the prospect that damages liability may render an official unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties. . . .
. It is ironic that this decision should come out at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Watergate affair. Even the popular press has drawn from that affair an insight into the character of the American constitutional system that is bound to be profoundly shaken by today’s decision: “The important lesson that Watergate established is that no President is above the law. It is a banality, a cliche, but it is a point on which many Americans . . . seem confused.” 119 Time, No. 24, p. 28 (June 14, 1982). A majority of the Court shares this confusion.
The majority vigorously protests this characterization of its position, arguing that the President remains subject to law in the form of impeachment proceedings. But the abandonment of the rule of law here is not in the result reached, but in the manner of reaching it. The majority fails to apply to the President those principles which we have consistently used to determine the scope and credibility of an absolute immunity defense. It does this because of some preconceived notion of the inapplicability of general rules of law to the President. . . .
. In fact, insofar as the Constitution addresses the issue of Presidential liability, its approach is very different from that taken in the Speech or Debate Clause. The possibility of impeachment assures that the President can be held accountable to the other branches of Government for his actions; the Constitution further states that impeachment does not bar criminal prosecution.
. I will not speculate on the Presidential functions which may require absolute immunity, but a clear example would be instances in which the President participates in prosecutorial decisions.