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Donald Trump is bringing more than his Make America Great ideas to the White House. He will move into office with some 75 pending civil lawsuits. Will these legal woes impact his ability to be an effective president?
Compelled to court as President
Can a sitting president be compelled to give depositions or appear in court for cases that involve his non-official actions? Yes, thanks to a precedent set while President Bill Clinton was in office.
While serving as president, Clinton was sued by Paula Jones for sexual harassment that dated back to his time as the governor of Arkansas. “Clinton requested that the case be dismissed without prejudice until after his presidency,” says attorney Brandon Arber of White and Williams LLP in Boston.
“The U.S. Supreme Court decided that a sitting president is subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens concerning personal, private conduct,” Arber explains. “The court not only ruled that discovery could go forward but found that the trial should go forward as well.” The Constitution provides no temporary civil immunity for the president.
At the time, the court predicted that the suit would be “highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount” of the president’s time. It turned out, however, the case involved a tremendous amount of President Clinton’s time, as false statements he made during depositions eventually led to his long, drawn-out impeachment.
The Trump University lawsuit
In 2013, the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Donald Trump for allegedly scamming thousands of Americans out of millions of dollars via the now-defunct Trump University.
Schneiderman’s civil suit, along with two class-action lawsuits in California, were scheduled to go to trial on November 28—timed to follow the election campaign but precede the inauguration. But in a somewhat surprising move, Trump agreed to settle the lawsuits.
In his official statement, the attorney general said that the “$25 million settlement agreement is a stunning reversal by Donald Trump and a major victory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent university.” Schneiderman said he is “pleased that under the terms of this settlement, every victim will receive restitution and that Donald Trump will pay up to $1 million in penalties to the State of New York for violating state education laws.”
The president-elect tweeted that the settlement would enable him to focus on running the country. But, in true Trump form, he boldly asserted that, if the matter had gone to court, he would have won. “The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!”
One down, 75 to go…
Despite the Trump University settlement, Trump’s legal troubles are far from over. He is currently involved in nearly 75 civil lawsuits, something never before seen in our nation’s history. Trump has been too busy during his campaign and now preparing to take office to deal with the pending litigation that currently surrounds him.
Trump is not always on the receiving end of civil litigation. Displeased with its portrayal of him throughout his campaign, Trump has threatened to sue the New York Times and other media outlets for libel. He most recently did so following an article that featured accusations from two women that Trump had touched them inappropriately.
Additionally, Trump’s businesses have filed suit against individuals in Washington, D.C. for backing out of real estate leases. The defendants, José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, did so after Trump made controversial comments about Mexican immigrants.
Congress can help
Without a way to put these matters on hold, Trump is bound to find his presidency continually interrupted by civil cases. Congress could help curb these distractions by enacting a law that would put on hold civil actions involving President Trump while he is in office.
Such a law might provide that any lawsuit against a sitting president or president-elect, whether filed before or after taking office, would not move forward until the president vacates the Oval Office. That law would not protect Trump from criminal prosecution or from impeachment, but it would place at bay any civil legal distractions that revolve around his personal or business interests.
And there’s precedent in this realm as well (sort of): temporary immunity already exists for military personnel. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is a federal law that protects members of the armed forces with “the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings and transactions that may adversely affect” their military service.
A similar law temporarily shielding the president would allow Trump to focus on serving the public instead of getting tangled up in civil suits. It also would eliminate pressures of federal or state statutes of limitations and enable legal actions to resume—whether Trump is the plaintiff or the defendant—when he leaves office.
Would it be fair to plaintiffs who would then have to wait four (potentially eight) years for resolution of their civil suits? Probably not. And yet it would seem that all Americans have a stake in giving Trump every chance to stay focused on his responsibilities as chief executive. Congress will have to decide on the best course of action.