Excerpts from the majority opinion of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the case of Nixon vs. Fitzgerald:
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 . . . .
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 is now 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 not only of the president and his office but also the nation that the presidency was designed to serve . . . .
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 . . . .
Excerpts from the dissent of Justice Byron R. White.
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 . . . .
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 an unanimous court in United States vs. Nixon, supra . . . .
The majority may be correct in its conclusion that "a rule of absolute immunity will not leave the nation without sufficient remedies for misconduct on the part of the chief executive."
Such a rule will, however, leave Mr. Fitzgerald without an adaquate 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 pursure 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 vs. Madison, in the name of protecting the principle of separation of powers. Accordingly, I dissent.