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- An appeals court is set to weigh in on E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Donald Trump.
- Trump and the DOJ argue that he can’t be personally sued for statements he made in office.
- Carroll’s lawyers argue that the statements in question had nothing to do with his job.
A defamation lawsuit against former President Donald Trump will be heard by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on Tuesday, and while the case stems from a rape allegation, what’s at stake is whether presidents can be sued for comments they make in office.
The case concerns longtime Elle advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegation against Trump, and his subsequent denials.
In June 2019, Carroll wrote in an essay for New York Magazine that Trump forced himself on her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-1990s.
Trump was president at the time Carroll went public with the rape claim, and he loudly denied her allegation in a series of statements to the press, in which he insulted her appearance and claimed she made the accusation up to sell her memoir. Trump went so far as to claim he never met Carroll, but that was quickly refuted with an image of the two chatting at a party in 1987.
Carroll sued Trump for defamation in November 2019, saying her career suffered “as a direct result of Trump’s defamatory statements.”
Trump — and the Department of Justice, which later intervened in the case — have argued that he is protected by a federal law known as the Westfall Act.
Advice columnist E. Jean Carroll is pictured in New York in 2020.
The Westfall Act protects government employees from being sued for actions in the line of their work. A common use of the act is protecting US Postal Service workers from being sued for car accidents they’re involved in. Instead, the US government becomes the defendant in such suits.
The DOJ has argued in court filings that Trump’s comments were protected by the Westfall Act because part of the job of being president is “speaking to the public and the media on matters of public concern — including, at times, responding to allegations about the elected official’s own private conduct bearing on his fitness to hold office.”
Carroll’s legal team has countered that Trump “acted with private motives, and not in furtherance of any official federal purpose or function, in seeking to punish and humiliate Carroll for revealing his decades-old crime,” according to their court filings.
The legal question of whether Trump was protected by the Westfall Act has divided judges as the case has made its way through the courts.
US District Judge Lewis Kaplan sided with Carroll’s lawyers, ruling in October 2020 that Trump wasn’t acting in his official capacity when he denied Carroll’s rape allegation.
“His comments concerned an alleged sexual assault that took place several decades before he took office, and the allegations have no relationship to the official business of the United States,” Kaplan wrote.
But when Trump’s lawyers appealed Kaplan’s decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a three-judge panel was split on the issue, favoring Trump 2-1.
However, the panel agreed there was some uncertainty over whether Trump’s comments were made within the scope of his employment, and ultimately passed the case to the DC Court of Appeals since the case focuses on DC law. That court will hear oral arguments in the appeal on Tuesday.
The DC Court of Appeals will be hearing the case “en banc,” meaning every judge in the court will hear the case and offer an opinion — a situation reserved for particularly complex cases.
What’s at stake
The appeals court decision likely won’t have too much of an impact on Carroll, since she filed a second lawsuit against Trump in November.
That lawsuit also stems from her rape allegation, and includes a defamation complaint over Trump calling her allegations a “Hoax and a lie” on his social media platform, Truth, in October 2022. Because he made those comments after leaving the White House, he won’t be able to claim Westfall Act protection.
The second lawsuit also includes a claim of battery. Previously, Carroll had not been able to sue Trump for the alleged rape itself, because the statute of limitations had expired. But a new New York law, the Adult Survivors Act, temporarily allows the filing of lawsuits claiming sexual assault in cases where the statute of limitations has expired.
This means that one way or another, Carroll’s allegations against Trump are likely to go in front of a jury — if Trump doesn’t settle the case first.
But the case is still important when it comes to determining just how much protection the Westfall Act offers a sitting president.
If the court sides with Trump, it could further expand the protections a president is given, making it incredibly difficult to sue a president for anything he or she says while in office — even if those statements are libelous. It also means that the suit will likely be dismissed, since the federal government can’t be sued for defamation.
Denny Chin, the lone dissenter on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who sided with Carroll, underlined how Trump winning on this issue could have ramifications for the presidency:
Chin wrote that “no President could be held accountable for damage done in front of a microphone or in an official meeting — whether defaming a citizen, exposing classified national security information, or inciting a riot.”
“This is not, and should not be, the law,” Chin wrote.
Shanlon Wu, a partner at DC law firm Cohen Seglias, told Insider that the case is so specific to Trump’s personal situation that a win for Trump wouldn’t necessarily apply to future presidents.
However, he said one potential consequence of the court siding with Carroll is that it could open Trump up to lawsuits from other people he verbally attacked in office.
“That makes it very high stakes for Trump, but not as a matter of legal precedent,” Wu said.
Another thing to keep in mind: if the court sides with Carroll, her case could be heard in a matter of months.
Carroll’s lawyers have petitioned to try both cases at the same time, and the current trial date for the first lawsuit is scheduled for April 10.