Court re­jects im­mu­nity for Trump in state law­suit

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Feli­cia Son­mez WASH­ING­TON POST

A New York ap­pel­late court ruled Thurs­day that Pres­i­dent Trump must face a defama­tion law­suit filed by for­mer “Ap­pren­tice” con­tes­tant Sum­mer Zer­vos, one of about a dozen women who ac­cused Trump of sex­ual mis­con­duct shortly be­fore the 2016 elec­tion.

The rul­ing means that at­tor­neys for Zer­vos may have the op­por­tu­nity to ques­tion Trump un­der oath in the com­ing months. The cur­rent sched­ule sets a dead­line of June 28 for de­po­si­tions, with doc­u­ment and elec­tronic dis­cov­ery ex­pected to be con­cluded by the end of July. Trump has called Zer­vos and the other women who made ac­cu­sa­tions against him “liars,” prompt­ing Zer­vos to file a law­suit in 2017.

Trump’s at­tor­neys have tried un­suc­cess­fully to block the suit, ar­gu­ing that the pres­i­dent is im­mune from such law­suits in state court.

In its rul­ing Thurs­day, a panel of New York ap­pel­late judges re­jected that ar­gu­ment, cit­ing the U.S. Supreme Court’s rul­ing in Clin­ton v. Jones, which es­tab­lished that pres­i­dents can be sued while in of­fice for un­of­fi­cial acts.

Two of the five judges on the panel dis­sented in part.

“Con­trary to de­fen­dant’s con­tention, Clin­ton v Jones did not sug­gest that its rea­son­ing would not ap­ply to state court ac­tions,” the judges said in their ma­jor­ity de­ci­sion. “It merely iden­ti­fied a po­ten­tial con­sti­tu­tional con­cern. 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.”

Zer­vos’ le­gal team hailed the rul­ing as an af­fir­ma­tion that Trump “is not above the law.”

“The case has pro­ceeded in the trial court and dis­cov­ery con­tin­ues,” Mar­i­ann Wang, Zer­vos’s at­tor­ney, said in a state­ment. “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.”

Trump’s at­tor­ney, Marc Ka­sowitz, said that he dis­agreed with the rul­ing and that the pres­i­dent plans to ap­peal to the New York Court of Ap­peals, “which we ex­pect will agree with the dis­sent.”

“We be­lieve,” Ka­sowitz said in a state­ment, “that the well-rea­soned dis­sent­ing opin­ion by 2 of the 5 jus­tices, cit­ing the U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion in the Clin­ton v. Jones case, is cor­rect in con­clud­ing that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion bars state courts from hear­ing cases against the Pres­i­dent while he or she is in of­fice.”

Zer­vos has said Trump forcibly kissed and groped her dur­ing a De­cem­ber 2007 en­counter at the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel in Los An­ge­les.

The rul­ing in Zer­vos’ case also hurts Trump’s cause in a sep­a­rate New York law­suit – this one in­volv­ing his trou­bled char­ity, the Don­ald J. Trump Foun­da­tion. Last year, the New York at­tor­ney gen­eral sued Trump, al­leg­ing “per­sis­tently il­le­gal con­duct” at the char­ity he has run for 31 years.

Among other al­le­ga­tions, the at­tor­ney gen­eral said Trump had used his char­ity’s money to pay le­gal set­tle­ments for his for-profit busi­nesses, to buy ex­pen­sive por­traits of him­self, and to serve as an ex­ten­sion of his po­lit­i­cal cam­paign in 2016, mak­ing do­na­tions ar­ranged by cam­paign staffers.

That suit is also filed in New York state court, and Trump’s at­tor­neys had ar­gued that his sta­tus as pres­i­dent should ex­empt him from state suits. In a re­cent rul­ing, the judge in the Trump Foun­da­tion case said that if the Zer­vos rul­ing were to go in Trump’s fa­vor, she would also dis­miss the char­ity law­suit.

The foun­da­tion case likely will pro­ceed.

Nei­ther New York At­tor­ney Gen­eral Leti­tia James, a Demo­crat, nor a Trump Foun­da­tion at­tor­ney im­me­di­ately re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment Thurs­day. Many of the al­le­ga­tions about mis­con­duct at the Trump Foun­da­tion were first re­ported by The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2016.

Also on Thurs­day, James en­tered a new le­gal fil­ing with what she said were “undis­puted” facts about the Trump Foun­da­tion. Among them: James said that the foun­da­tion’s board, which was legally re­quired to over­see the char­ity’s spend­ing, had not met since 1999.

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