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In a case that may eventually climb the ladder all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, a New York state judge has ruled that President Donald Trump isn’t immune from facing a defamation lawsuit while in office.
“No one is above the law,” writes New York Supreme Court Judge Jennifer Schecter in allowing a defamation lawsuit brought by season-five Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos.
The dispute arose after tape was published of Trump boasting to Access Hollywood‘s Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals. As Trump was under fire for his comments, Zervos came forward to accuse him of kissing her twice in 2007 and attacking her in a hotel room. “I never met her at a hotel,” responded Trump, who would also attack allegations from his accusers as “100 percent fabricated and made-up charges, pushed strongly by the media and the Clinton campaign.”
Zervos claims she’s been branded as a liar.
In response to the lawsuit, Trump argued that the U.S. Constitution didn’t allow this case to proceed right away thanks to the Supremacy Clause, which Trump’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, posited meant “that state governments, including their courts, refrain from interfering in the operations of the federal government.”
Kasowitz cited Clinton v. Jones, a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, which determined that presidents aren’t immune from civil actions in federal court but had a footnote where Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that it was “not necessary to consider or decide whether a comparable claim might succeed in a state tribunal.”
But it’s that same case that Zervos‘ attorney, Gloria Allred, argued supported the idea that Trump couldn’t pause the litigation.
Schecter agrees after hearing oral arguments in December.
“For the very same reasons articulated in Clinton v. Jones, a stay for the duration of the Trump presidency must be denied,” the opinion states.
Adds the judge, “Nothing in the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution even suggests that the President cannot be called to account for wrongful conduct that bears no relationship to any federal executive responsibility.”
Trump’s separate argument that his comments represented “pure political speech” and couldn’t rise to defamatory statements is also rejected. Schecter writes Trump’s statements denying assault charges “cannot be characterized simply as opinion, heated rhetoric or hyperbole.”
The judge continues: “Defendant — the only person other than plaintiff who knows what happened between the two of them — repeatedly accused plaintiff of dishonesty not just in his opinion but as a matter of fact. He not only averred that plaintiff told ‘phony stories’ and issued statements that were ‘totally false’ and ‘fiction,’ he insisted that the events ‘never happened’ and that the allegations were ‘100% false.’ A reader or listener, cognizant that defendant knows exactly what transpired, could reasonably believe what defendant’s statements convey: that plaintiff is contemptible because she ‘fabricated’ events for personal gain.”
Although Trump now must respond in court to the complaint, an immediate appeal is highly likely. That’s because New York is very generous in allowing interlocutory appeals, meaning ones before resolution of claims at trial. As such, the decision could be reviewed by a New York appeals court before being tackled by the 2nd Circuit and eventually perhaps the Supreme Court.
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