A DC appeals court will decide if E. Jean Carroll can sue Donald Trump over her rape claims. The Justice Department says being president makes him immune.
An appeals court heard arguments in E. Jean Carroll's defamation suit against Trump on Tuesday.
Trump and the DOJ argued that he can't be personally sued for statements he made in office.
Carroll's lawyers argued that the statements in question had nothing to do with his job.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals heard arguments in former President Donald Trump's appeal of E. Jean Carroll's defamation lawsuit 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.
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.
But the courts have been divided so far on whether the Westfall Act applies to Trump in this instance.
US District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in October 2020, that it didn't, saying it was clear 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 asked the DC Court of Appeals to weigh in. That court heard arguments on Tuesday.
The central issue in the case is whether Trump made the comments against Carroll in the scope of his employment as president.
Mark Freeman, an attorney for the DOJ, noted at the beginning of his argument that Trump's comments about Carroll were "plainly" not appropriate. But, Freeman said, "part of the job of a senior elected official is to be responsive to the public and the media on matters of public concern and major public controversies and that when they do so they generally act within the scope of their office or employment."
Alina Habba, an attorney for Trump, doubled down on this argument. Some of Trump's comments about Carroll were made in response to questions from the press, during a briefing on the White House lawn, she said. She said a ruling in favor of Carroll would have negative effects on a president's ability to do his or her job.
"Presidents can't be afraid to answer questions from the podium on the front lawn," Habba said.
Joshua Matz, one of Carroll's attorneys, argued that Trump's comments about Carroll were made "for personal reasons," and not in the scope of his employment.
Matz added that Trump may have shot himself in the foot by making degrading remarks Carroll. If Trump had simply denied the allegation, he would have a much stronger claim that he was performing the duties of a president, according to Trump.
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.
A ruling from the DC Court of Appeals is not expected for weeks. However, it's possible they may choose not to rule on the issue, and send the case back to the Second Circuit for more investigation into Trump's motives. Several judges pointed out Tuesday that they weren't given any evidence about Trump's motivations that could help them decide whether DC law protects Trump here.
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.
Read the original article on Business Insider