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Appeals court: No immunity from state court lawsuits for Donald Trump

The judges ruling on a sexual harassment claim by an "Apprentice" contestant relied primarily on a Supreme Court precedent set with President Bill Clinton.

Summer Zervos leaves New York state appellate court

Summer Zervos leaves New York state appellate court in New York, Oct. 18, 2018. Photo Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

A New York appeals court on Thursday ruled that President Donald Trump does not have immunity from state court lawsuits, giving the go ahead to a claim by a former “Apprentice” contestant that Trump groped her and then defamed her by calling her a liar.

The ruling from the state Appellate Division’s First Department in Manhattan upheld a trial judge’s ruling in favor of the contestant, Summer Zervos, that found Trump was not above the law and allowed her defamation suit to proceed.

“The current sitting President attempts to shield himself from consequences for his alleged unofficial misconduct by relying upon the constitutional protection of the Presidency,” the court wrote in a 3-2 ruling. “We reject defendant President Trump’s argument.”

The judges relied primarily on a Supreme Court ruling that President Bill Clinton had no immunity from a harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. That ruling, the New York court said, applied to state as well as federal lawsuits.

“Defendant’s interpretation conflicts with the fundamental principle that the United States has a ‘government of laws and not of men,’ ” wrote Judge Dianne Renwick. “Though he is tasked with significant responsibilities, the President is still a person, and he is not above the law.”

The two dissenting judges worried that subjecting the president to a state court’s jurisdiction could violate the federal Constitution’s Supremacy Clause if it issued orders that were in conflict with his constitutional duties.

“Since the Supremacy Clause guarantees that any effort by the individual states to annul, minimize, or otherwise interfere with those laws will be struck down, it follows that any effort by a state court to control the President must likewise fail,” wrote Judge Angela Mazzarelli.

The court also rejected Trump’s claim that his denial of Zervos’ groping allegations was just an opinion, and could not be the subject of a defamation suit.

“A denial, coupled with the claim that the accuser is or will be proven a liar, impugns a person’s character as dishonest or immoral and typically crosses the line from nonactionable general denial to a specific factual statement about another that is reasonably susceptible of defamatory meaning,” the judges wrote.

Zervos claims in the lawsuit that Trump kissed and groped her in unsuccessful come-ons in 2007. She came forward during the presidential campaign in 2016 after other women complained about his behavior. He called her claims a hoax and fabrication, and she sued for defamation.

Although Thursday’s ruling, subject to a possible further appeal, clears the way for the lawsuit to go forward, the judges did not determine whether Zervos was telling the truth.

In a statement issued after the ruling, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz said the president’s team believed the dissenters were right.

“We will seek to appeal the majority decision to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, which we expect will agree with the dissent,” Kasowitz said.

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