Appeals Court Rules President Can Be Sued in State Court

March 14, 2019 by Dan McCue

A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that President Donald Trump isn’t immune from a defamation lawsuit filed by a former “Apprentice” contestant who accused him of unwanted groping and defamation.

The ruling is precedent setting. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that then-president Bill Clinton could be sued in federal court over matters that were distinct from his official duties, but the justices said nothing at the time about whether such litigation was allowed in state courts.

With its ruling on Thursday, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for New York’s First Judicial Department held that sitting presidents are not immune from civil lawsuits filed against them in state courts.

In doing so it rejected arguments from President Donald Trump’s attorneys that the case shouldn’t go forward while he is in office.

The plaintiff in the case, Summer Zervos was one of over a dozen women who came forward during Trump’s 2016 campaign accusing him of sexual misconduct that had occurred years earlier.

Trump responded by repeatedly assailing the women on the campaign trail and on Twitter, calling them liars who were only trying to harm his campaign.

Lawyers for Zervos, who appeared on Trump’s  “The Apprentice” program in 2006, say Trump was the one who was lying and that his falsehoods during the campaign subjected her to threats and cost her business at her Southern California restaurant.

She has said she didn’t go public with her allegations for almost a decade because she admired Trump as a businessman and considered the incidents isolated episodes of bad behavior.

Zervos said she changed her mind about staying silent after hearing the “Access Hollywood” recording that emerged in October 2016 on which Trump is heard boasting about groping women.

Zervos is seeking a retraction, an apology, and compensatory and punitive damages.

Trump’s legal team has countered by maintaining their client was only offering his opinion on the claims, and that he had a free-speech right to express it.

Writing for the appellate court majority on Thursday, Justice Dianne Renwick said, “The current sitting President attempts to shield himself from consequences for his alleged unofficial misconduct by relying upon the constitutional protection of the Presidency.”

“We reject defendant President Trump’s argument that the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution prevents a New York State court — and every other state court in the country — from exercising its authority under its state constitution,” Renwick continued “Instead, we find that the Supremacy Clause was never intended to deprive a state court of its authority to decide cases and controversies under the state’s constitution.”

Later she noted the “Supremacy Clause provides that federal law supersedes state law with which it conflicts, but it does not provide that the President himself is immune from state law that does not conflict with federal law.

“Despite the suggestion in his brief that he is the ’embodi[ment of] the Executive Branch,’ and though he is tasked with significant responsibilities, the President is still a person, and he is not above the law,” Renwick wrote.

Two of the five justices on the panel, Angela Mazzarelli and Peter Tom, both of whom were appointed to the bench by former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo, dissented on the grounds that subjecting a president to a state trial would interfere with his ability to carry out his constitutional duties.

In theory, the decision increases the odds that Trump will be called to sit for sworn questioning in the lawsuit. Both sides now face a June 28 deadline to complete depositions in the case.

The president’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said he planned to respond to the ruling Thursday afternoon.

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