A divided New York appeals panel has rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to dismiss or stall a lawsuit brought by a former “Apprentice” contestant who claims Trump sexually assaulted her a decade ago.
The appellate panel voted 3-2 to deny Trump’s bid to head off the suit from Summer Zervos, who says Trump kissed her, groped her breast and pressed his genitals against her in a Los Angeles hotel in 2007.
Story Continued Below
After Trump denied the claims during the 2016 presidential campaign, Zervos sued him for defamation.
Trump’s lawyers argued that allowing such a suit to proceed in a state court would interfere with his responsibilities as president under the Constitution, but a trial judge rejected that argument and on Thursday the majority of the appeals panel agreed.
“Defendant’s interpretation conflicts with the fundamental principle that the United States has a ‘government of laws and not of men,’” Justice Dianne Renwick wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Troy Webber and Cynthia Kern.
Renwick explained that Trump’s legal team argument that the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause — which gives federal laws precedence over state laws — should prevent the Zervos suit from proceeding had no support in the Constitution or prior case law.
Renwick declared that there is nothing in the Constitution or prior case law to support the Trump legal team’s argument that the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause — which generally gives federal laws precedence over state laws — bars a state court from exercising jurisdiction over the president.
Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz vowed an appeal.
“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.
An attorney for Zervos, Mariann Wang, hailed the ruling and said it meant fact-finding could proceed. As part of that process, Trump could be made to submit to a deposition by the end of June.
“We are very pleased that the [court] has affirmed once again that Defendant ‘is not above the law,’” Wang said. “We look forward to proving to a jury that Ms. Zervos told the truth about Defendant’s unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies.”
The arguments Trump’s attorneys leveled against Zervos were based largely on an issue left unresolved in a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that resulted from a lawsuit Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed against President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. The justices unanimously voted to allow that suit to proceed, but noted it was filed in federal court, unlike the Zervos suit.
In a footnote, the high court said a state court suit would present different concerns, but the ruling did not offer a conclusion on that point.
Renwick’s decision said that brief mention wasn’t enough to shut down Zervos’ suit.
“Contrary to defendant’s contention, Clinton v Jones did not suggest that its reasoning would not apply to state court actions. It merely identified a potential constitutional concern,” she wrote. “Notwithstanding that concern, this Court should not be deterred from holding that a state court can exercise jurisdiction over the President as a defendant in a civil lawsuit.”
Citing the president’s wide-ranging and urgent responsibilities, the two judges who dissented on Thursday said they would have granted Trump’s motion to put the case on hold as long as he remains president.
“The question … becomes whether this all-consuming nature of the Presidency creates a constitutional barrier to defendant’s susceptibility to suit in state court … I believe that it does,” Justice Angela Mazzarelli wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Peter Tom.
Mazzarelli seized on the majority’s concession that it would “likely” be unconstitutional for a state court judge to hold the president in contempt. She said the prospect that Trump could be held in contempt illustrated the flaw in allowing the suit to proceed at this time.
“The even remote possibility of such an event elevates an arm of the state over the federal government to a degree that the Supremacy Clause cannot abide,” Mazzarelli wrote.
In his statement promising to take the issue to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, Kasowitz called the dissent “well-reasoned” and “correct.”
If Trump can’t get relief from the state courts, he could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.