Justice John Paul Stevens, who died recently at the ripe old age of 99, is the man who wrote the ruling that now means that Trump has to face civil lawsuits while in office. And a lot of Democrats were mad about it at the time because it was the case of Paula Jones suing Bill Clinton, which ultimately led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment. But it was the right decision then and it still is now.
Clinton’s attorneys argued that a sitting president could not be sued in civil court, just as they can’t be criminally charged (according to the DOJ, not the Constitution, but this has long been honored anyway). The trial judge agreed. The appeals court partially agreed, dismissing the suit but rejecting the idea that a sitting president could not be sued. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Stevens, rejected that argument completely.
Writing for a unanimous court, Stevens ruled that the president is not immune from civil suits for private acts.
In that same decision, Stevens rejected some of the formal and extreme separation of powers arguments we have heard recently in favor of presidential immunity. He quoted the Founders, like James Wilson, who said “that, although the President ‘is placed [on] high,’ ‘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.'” Stevens explained that while a president may be immune from civil litigation when acting as a public official, he “is otherwise subject to the laws for his purely private acts.”
Stevens also cited James Madison on the importance of checks and balances: “As Madison explained, separation of powers does not mean that the branches ‘ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over the acts of each other.’” Stevens cited precedent, Mistretta v. United States, to explain: “[O]ur system imposes upon the Branches a degree of overlapping responsibility, a duty of interdependence as well as independence the absence of which would preclude the establishment of a Nation capable of governing itself effectively.”
The notion that presidents get temporary immunity from civil suits for private acts is repugnant to the rule of law and a clear rejection of what the founders considered the crucial checks and balances on presidential power. The fact that all nine justices agreed, from Clarence Thomas to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is rare in such a major and controversial case. But they were right and Stevens wrote an eloquent opinion confirming the judgment of the court. You can read the full opinion here.