10 of the Biggest Lawsuits against Presidents in U.S. History

President Donald Trump

Chances are good interested individuals have heard about the lawsuits targeting former U.S. president Donald Trump. If not, The Guardian and other publications have write-ups that offer useful summaries of the situation. Trump is far from being the first U.S. president to have been sued, though he still stands out because of the sheer number of times he has been sued.

Here are 10 of the biggest lawsuits against presidents in U.S. history:

10. Bush v. Gore

Strictly speaking, Bush v. Gore didn’t see a U.S. president being sued. However, it gets mentioned when people talk about such topics for very good reasons. After all, it confirmed that George W. Bush would be the 43rd U.S. president. Furthermore, its controversial nature meant that it would have far-reaching effects on U.S. politics.

For context, George W. Bush and Al Gore were the Republican and Democratic nominees for the U.S. presidential election in 2000. Bush had won 246 electoral votes, while Gore had won 267 electoral votes. As a result, whoever won Florida’s 25 electoral votes would become the next U.S. president.

Bush won the initial count. The issue is that he won by a narrow margin, which triggered an automatic recount that further narrowed the margin while excluding numerous votes. Gore demanded a manual recount. Florida’s Supreme Court agreed, which created an issue because the state didn’t have uniform guidelines for conducting a manual recount.

As such, Bush requested the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the manual recount, which it did in a 5-4 decision on the ground that the lack of uniform guidelines violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute points out that this had a couple of far-reaching effects on U.S. politics. One, it damaged people’s trust in elections because of the perception that the U.S. Supreme Court had handed victory to Bush. Two, it damaged the public’s trust in the U.S. Supreme Court because of the perception that the justices had decided on partisan lines. These issues would flare up in later years when Bush’s popularity declined.

9. Doe v. Bush

It is very common for U.S. presidents to be sued when they choose to engage in military action. Doe v. Bush is one of the better-known examples because it happened in response to the invasion of Iraq, which was a fateful decision for a wide range of reasons.

It was dismissed in 2003 because the U.S. Congress had already given Bush the authorization for military action in the previous year.

There were similar lawsuits for the intervention in Kuwait, the intervention in Kosovo, and the intervention in Libya. None of these lawsuits have ever succeeded, though the exact reasons for their failures have seen some variation from case to case.

8. Barnett v. Obama

People who remember Barack Obama’s time as U.S. president might remember the conspiracy theories about his citizenship status. The general idea is that he isn’t a natural citizen, thus making him and his administration illegitimate.

Obama isn’t the only U.S. politician to have experienced such attacks. For example, John McCain was targeted because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Similarly, Barry Goldwater was targeted because he was born in Arizona when it was still a territory rather than a state.

Still, the conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship status have seen the most spread despite the best efforts of Snopes and other publications to correct false notions.

There have been a huge number of lawsuits because of these conspiracy theories. Most of them have failed without much mention by the media.

Barnett v. Obama was a minor exception because of the involvement of Orly Taitz, who was a somewhat well-known figure in the so-called birther movement for a time.

The lawsuit met the same failure as its counterparts. At one point, there was even infighting, as shown by the successful effort to replace Taitz as the attorney and the not-so-successful effort to dismiss two of the plaintiffs.

7. Nixon v. Fitzgerald

Unsurprisingly, Richard Nixon was involved in more than one lawsuit. This one is interesting because it determined some of the details of U.S. presidents’ legal immunity.

In short, Arthur Ernest Fitzgerald sued Nixon and others, claiming that he had lost his position as a U.S. Air Force contractor because of his testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1968. Nixon responded by arguing that he couldn’t be sued for his actions when he was still in office.

Neither the trial court nor the appellate court was impressed by Nixon’s argument. In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court gave U.S. presidents legal immunity under some circumstances and not under others.

Specifically, it ruled in a 5-4 decision that they weren’t liable for civil damages resulting from their official acts, but they could still be charged for crimes connected to their official and unofficial acts. Later, Nixon v. Fitzgerald would be clarified by another lawsuit against a U.S. president – Clinton v. Jones.

6. United States House of Representatives v. Azar

United States House of Representatives v. Azar names Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. However, The Atlantic and other publications once called it the House Republicans’ lawsuit against Obama and variations on that name.

That is because the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, and other House Republicans sued various parts of the executive branch under Obama in 2014 as the fulfillment of a longstanding promise to do so over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

It ended with a settlement in 2017. Effectively, that meant the U.S. House of Representatives had the standing to sue in this case without it being binding on other cases. Furthermore, that meant the removal of the injunction that banned the critical cost-sharing reduction payments.

5. Clinton v. Jones

As mentioned earlier, Clinton v. Jones clarified Nixon v. Fitzgerald. For context, Bill Clinton has been accused of sexual misconduct by four women. One of the four is Paula Jones, who filed a civil lawsuit against him for sexual harassment in 1994 because of an incident in 1991. In response, then-U.S. president Clinton tried to fight it on the ground of U.S. presidents’ legal immunity.

Initially, a judge ruled that he couldn’t be sued because he was still in office, though she allowed the pre-trial discovery phase to go forward so that the trial could start as soon as he was out of office.

Later, a court of appeals decided that a private civil lawsuit against a sitting U.S. president over something that happened before they took office and unrelated to their office could proceed while they were still in office. The U.S. Supreme Court then upheld the decision.

This had major consequences. In particular, it gave momentum to Ken Starr’s investigation into Clinton’s financial dealings, which would lead to his eventual impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and acquittal by the U.S. Senate in 1999.

Moreover, Jones appealed the initial dismissal of her lawsuit because of the new information that came out in the process. Politico points out that Clinton chose to pay $850,000 in an out-of-court settlement for her to drop the lawsuit. His lawyers said it was meant to let him move on, while Jones and her lawyers said it was evidence of his guilt.

4. Saleh v. Bush

Saleh v. Bush is named after the lead plaintiff Sundus Shaker Saleh. It was a class action lawsuit in which Saleh and the other plaintiffs claimed that Bush and high-ranking officials in the Bush administration conspired to wage a war of aggression upon the Iraqi people.

The lawsuit never went very far. Instead, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California substituted the U.S. government for Bush and the other named officials. After this, it ruled that there were jurisdictional issues because the plaintiffs hadn’t met the requirement of exhausting administrative remedies.

An appeal was made, which resulted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirming the previous ruling.

3. Thompson v. Trump

CNN reported Thompson v. Trump was the first civil lawsuit against Trump filed in connection to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The claim is that Trump and Rudy Giuliani conspired with far-right groups to incite the attack. In particular, the civil lawsuit mentioned their presence at a political rally held earlier on the same day.

There was mention of Trump encouraging his supporters to fight and to show strength as well as mention of Guiliani telling Trump’s supporters to have a trial by combat.

It is interesting to note that Thompson v. Trump cited an anti-Ku Klux Klan law passed after the American Civil War. It is obscure and little used. Even so, the law allows civil lawsuits against two or more people working to prevent federal officials from carrying out their duties through the use of force and other forms of coercion.

That matters because Thompson refers to Rep. Bennie Thompson, who is the one who filed the civil lawsuit but isn’t the only Democratic member of the U.S. Congress to become involved.

2. Michigan Welfare Rights Organization v. Trump

Trump and his team went to great lengths to deny his opponent Joe Biden victory in the U.S. presidential election in 2020. For instance, they filed numerous lawsuits, which failed because of a lack of evidence for their claims of fraud and other crimes.

Unsurprisingly, various organizations have filed various lawsuits against him because of these efforts. To name an example, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization filed a lawsuit against Trump and his team in November 2020, claiming that they had tried to disenfranchise black voters in Michigan.

By December 2020, the NAACP had filed an amended complaint, claiming that Trump and his team had worked with the RNC to disenfranchise black voters in several cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.

The lawsuit is ongoing. CBS reported in November 2022 that a federal judge had just rejected Trump’s attempt at claiming legal immunity in the matter. Only time can tell what will happen next.

1. United States v. Nixon

Watergate refers to a Washington, D.C.-based building complex that housed the DNC headquarters in 1972. History.com says the Watergate scandal happened when several burglars were caught bugging the phones and stealing documents.

Richard Nixon tried to cover up their connection to his reelection campaign, but the truth of things came out bit by bit. Eventually, he was forced to resign before he was removed.

After this, his successor Gerald Ford gave him a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while he was the U.S. president.

A decision that took a devastating toll on Ford’s reputation at the time. Annoyingly, it isn’t clear why the Watergate scandal happened in the first case.

There isn’t even a consensus on whether the burglars were trying to get damaging information on the DNC or trying to see if the DNC had gotten any damaging information on Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Regardless, United States v. Nixon was a major moment in the whole sequence of events. It happened because Nixon tried to partially satisfy an order to deliver subpoenaed material about meetings between him and indicted individuals to a federal district court.

The judge was less than impressed, so he brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter acknowledged the existence of executive privilege, but it put limits upon it by saying that the U.S. president can’t use it as an excuse to withhold evidence relevant to a criminal case.

As such, United States v. Nixon did a great deal to define the legal limitations to the incredible power of the office.

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