decided: June 24, 1982.
HARLOW ET AL
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.
Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Rehnquist, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Marshall and Blackmun, JJ., joined, post, p. 820. Brennan, White, Marshall, and Blackmun, JJ., filed a separate concurring statement, post, p. 821. Rehnquist, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 822. Burger, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 822.
[ 457 U.S. Page 802]
JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The issue in this case is the scope of the immunity available to the senior aides and advisers of the President of the United States in a suit for damages based upon their official acts.
In this suit for civil damages petitioners Bryce Harlow and Alexander Butterfield are alleged to have participated in a conspiracy to violate the constitutional and statutory rights of the respondent A. Ernest Fitzgerald. Respondent avers that petitioners entered the conspiracy in their capacities as senior White House aides to former President Richard M. Nixon. As the alleged conspiracy is the same as that involved in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante, p. 731, the facts need not be repeated in detail.
Respondent claims that Harlow joined the conspiracy in his role as the Presidential aide principally responsible for congressional relations.*fn1 At the conclusion of discovery the
[ 457 U.S. Page 803]
supporting evidence remained inferential. As evidence of Harlow's conspiratorial activity respondent relies heavily on a series of conversations in which Harlow discussed Fitzgerald's dismissal with Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans.*fn2 The other evidence most supportive of Fitzgerald's claims consists of a recorded conversation in which the President later voiced a tentative recollection that Harlow was "all for canning" Fitzgerald.*fn3
Disputing Fitzgerald's contentions, Harlow argues that exhaustive discovery has adduced no direct evidence of his involvement
[ 457 U.S. Page 804]
in any wrongful activity.*fn4 He avers that Secretary Seamans advised him that considerations of efficiency required Fitzgerald's removal by a reduction in force, despite anticipated adverse congressional reaction. Harlow asserts he had no reason to believe that a conspiracy existed. He contends that he took all his actions in good faith.*fn5
Petitioner Butterfield also is alleged to have entered the conspiracy not later than May 1969. Employed as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff to H. R. Haldeman,*fn6 Butterfield circulated a White House memorandum in that month in which he claimed to have learned that Fitzgerald planned to "blow the whistle" on some "shoddy purchasing practices" by exposing these practices to public view.*fn7 Fitzgerald characterizes this memorandum as evidence
[ 457 U.S. Page 805]
that Butterfield had commenced efforts to secure Fitzgerald's retaliatory dismissal. As evidence that Butterfield participated in the conspiracy to conceal his unlawful discharge and prevent his reemployment, Fitzgerald cites communications between Butterfield and Haldeman in December 1969 and January 1970. After the President had promised at a press conference to inquire into Fitzgerald's dismissal, Haldeman solicited Butterfield's recommendations. In a subsequent memorandum emphasizing the importance of "loyalty," Butterfield counseled against offering Fitzgerald another job in the administration at that time.*fn8
For his part, Butterfield denies that he was involved in any decision concerning Fitzgerald's employment status until Haldeman sought his advice in December 1969 -- more than a month after Fitzgerald's termination had been scheduled and announced publicly by the Air Force. Butterfield states that he never communicated his views about Fitzgerald to any official of the Defense Department. He argues generally that nearly eight years of discovery have failed to turn up any evidence that he caused injury to Fitzgerald.*fn9
Together with their co-defendant Richard Nixon, petitioners Harlow and Butterfield moved for summary judgment on February 12, 1980. In denying the motion the District Court upheld the legal sufficiency of Fitzgerald's Bivens (Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971)) claim under the First Amendment and his "inferred" statutory causes of action under 5 U. S. C. § 7211 (1976 ed., Supp. IV) and 18 U. S. C. § 1505.*fn10 The court
[ 457 U.S. Page 806]
found that genuine issues of disputed fact remained for resolution at trial. It also ruled that petitioners were not entitled to absolute immunity. App. to Pet. for Cert. 1a-3a.
Independently of former President Nixon, petitioners invoked the collateral order doctrine and appealed the denial of their immunity defense to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal without opinion. Id., at 11a-12a. Never having determined the immunity available to the senior aides and advisers of the President of the United States, we granted certiorari. 452 U.S. 959 (1981).*fn11
As we reiterated today in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante, p. 731, our decisions consistently have held that government officials are entitled to some form of immunity from suits for damages. As recognized at common law, public officers require this protection to shield them from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.
[ 457 U.S. Page 807]
Our decisions have recognized immunity defenses of two kinds. For officials whose special functions or constitutional status requires complete protection from suit, we have recognized the defense of "absolute immunity." The absolute immunity of legislators, in their legislative functions, see, e. g., Eastland v. United States Servicemen's Fund, 421 U.S. 491 (1975), and of judges, in their judicial functions, see, e. g., Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978), now is well settled. Our decisions also have extended absolute immunity to certain officials of the Executive Branch. These include prosecutors and similar officials, see Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 508-512 (1978), executive officers engaged in adjudicative functions, id., at 513-517, and the President of the United States, see Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante, p. 731.
For executive officials in general, however, our cases make plain that qualified immunity represents the norm. In Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974), we acknowledged that high officials require greater protection than those with less complex discretionary responsibilities. Nonetheless, we held that a governor and his aides could receive the requisite protection from qualified or good-faith immunity. Id., at 247-248. In Butz v. Economou, supra, we extended the approach of Scheuer to high federal officials of the Executive Branch. Discussing in detail the considerations that also had underlain our decision in Scheuer, we explained that the recognition of a qualified immunity defense for high executives reflected an attempt to balance competing values: not only the importance of a damages remedy to protect the rights of citizens, 438 U.S., at 504-505, but also "the need to protect officials who are required to exercise their discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority." Id., at 506. Without discounting the adverse consequences of denying high officials an absolute immunity from private lawsuits alleging constitutional violations -- consequences found sufficient in Spalding v. Vilas, 161 U.S. 483 (1896), and Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564
[ 457 U.S. Page 808]
(1959), to warrant extension to such officials of absolute immunity from suits at common law -- we emphasized our expectation that insubstantial suits need not proceed to trial:
"Insubstantial lawsuits can be quickly terminated by federal courts alert to the possibilities of artful pleading. Unless the complaint states a compensable claim for relief . . . , it should not survive a motion to dismiss. Moreover, the Court recognized in Scheuer that damages suits concerning constitutional violations need not proceed to trial, but can be terminated on a properly supported motion for summary judgment based on the defense of immunity. . . . In responding to such a motion, plaintiffs may not play dog in the manger; and firm application of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure will ensure that federal officials are not harassed by frivolous lawsuits." 438 U.S., at 507-508 (citations omitted).
Butz continued to acknowledge that the special functions of some officials might require absolute immunity. But the Court held that "federal officials who seek absolute exemption from personal liability for unconstitutional conduct must bear the burden of showing that public policy requires an exemption of that scope." Id., at 506. This we reaffirmed today in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante, at 747.
Petitioners argue that they are entitled to a blanket protection of absolute immunity as an incident of their offices as Presidential aides. In deciding this claim we do not write on an empty page. In Butz v. Economou, supra, the Secretary of Agriculture -- a Cabinet official directly accountable to the President -- asserted a defense of absolute official immunity from suit for civil damages. We rejected his claim. In so doing we did not question the power or the importance of the Secretary's office. Nor did we doubt the importance to the
[ 457 U.S. Page 809]
President of loyal and efficient subordinates in executing his duties of office. Yet we found these factors, alone, to be insufficient to justify absolute immunity. "[The] greater power of [high] officials," we reasoned, "affords a greater potential for a regime of lawless conduct." 438 U.S., at 506. Damages actions against high officials were therefore "an important means of vindicating constitutional guarantees." Ibid. Moreover, we concluded that it would be "untenable to draw a distinction for purposes of immunity law between suits brought against state officials under [42 U. S. C.] § 1983 and suits brought directly under the Constitution against federal officials." Id., at 504.
Having decided in Butz that Members of the Cabinet ordinarily enjoy only qualified immunity from suit, we conclude today that it would be equally untenable to hold absolute immunity an incident of the office of every Presidential subordinate based in the White House. Members of the Cabinet are direct subordinates of the President, frequently with greater responsibilities, both to the President and to the Nation, than White House staff. The considerations that supported our decision in Butz apply with equal force to this case. It is no disparagement of the offices held by petitioners to hold that Presidential aides, like Members of the Cabinet, generally are entitled only to a qualified immunity.
In disputing the controlling authority of Butz, petitioners rely on the principles developed in Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972).*fn12 In Gravel we endorsed the view that "it is literally impossible . . . for Members of Congress to perform
[ 457 U.S. Page 810]
their legislative tasks without the help of aides and assistants" and that "the day-to-day work of such aides is so critical to the Members' performance that they must be treated as the latter's alter egos . . . ." Id., at 616-617. Having done so, we held the Speech and Debate Clause derivatively applicable to the "legislative acts" of a Senator's aide that would have been privileged if performed by the Senator himself. Id., at 621-622.
Petitioners contend that the rationale of Gravel mandates a similar "derivative" immunity for the chief aides of the President of the United States. Emphasizing that the President must delegate a large measure of authority to execute the duties of his office, they argue that recognition of derivative absolute immunity is made essential by all the considerations that support absolute immunity for the President himself.
Petitioners' argument is not without force. Ultimately, however, it sweeps too far. If the President's aides are derivatively immune because they are essential to the functioning of the Presidency, so should the Members of the Cabinet -- Presidential subordinates some of whose essential roles are acknowledged by the Constitution itself*fn13 -- be absolutely immune. Yet we implicitly rejected such derivative immunity in Butz.*fn14 Moreover, in general our cases have followed a "functional" approach to immunity law. We have recognized
[ 457 U.S. Page 811]
that the judicial, prosecutorial, and legislative functions require absolute immunity. But this protection has extended no further than its justification would warrant. In Gravel, for example, we emphasized that Senators and their aides were absolutely immune only when performing "acts legislative in nature," and not when taking other acts even "in their official capacity." 408 U.S., at 625. See Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 125-133 (1979). Our cases involving judges*fn15 and prosecutors*fn16 have followed a similar line. The undifferentiated extension of absolute "derivative" immunity to the President's aides therefore could not be reconciled with the "functional" approach that has characterized the immunity decisions of this Court, indeed including Gravel itself.*fn17
Petitioners also assert an entitlement to immunity based on the "special functions" of White House aides. This form
[ 457 U.S. Page 812]
of argument accords with the analytical approach of our cases. For aides entrusted with discretionary authority in such sensitive areas as national security or foreign policy, absolute immunity might well be justified to protect the unhesitating performance of functions vital to the national interest.*fn18 But a "special functions" rationale does not warrant a blanket recognition of absolute immunity for all Presidential aides in the performance of all their duties. This conclusion too follows from our decision in Butz, which establishes that an executive official's claim to absolute immunity must be justified by reference to the public interest in the special functions of his office, not the mere fact of high station.*fn19
Butz also identifies the location of the burden of proof. The burden of justifying absolute immunity rests on the official asserting the claim. 438 U.S., at 506. We have not of course had occasion to identify how a Presidential aide might carry this burden. But the general requisites are familiar in our cases. In order to establish entitlement to absolute immunity
[ 457 U.S. Page 813]
a Presidential aide first must show that the responsibilities of his office embraced a function so sensitive as to require a total shield from liability.*fn20 He then must demonstrate that he was discharging the protected function when performing the act for which liability is asserted.*fn21
Applying these standards to the claims advanced by petitioners Harlow and Butterfield, we cannot conclude on the record before us that either has shown that "public policy requires [for any of the functions of his office] an exemption of [absolute] scope." Butz, 438 U.S., at 506. Nor, assuming that petitioners did have functions for which absolute immunity would be warranted, could we now conclude that the acts charged in this lawsuit -- if taken at all -- would lie within the protected area. We do not, however, foreclose the possibility that petitioners, on remand, could satisfy the standards properly applicable to their claims.
Even if they cannot establish that their official functions require absolute immunity, petitioners assert that public policy at least mandates an application of the qualified immunity standard that would permit the defeat of insubstantial claims without resort to trial. We agree.
The resolution of immunity questions inherently requires a balance between the evils inevitable in any available alternative.
[ 457 U.S. Page 814]
In situations of abuse of office, an action for damages may offer the only realistic avenue for vindication of constitutional guarantees. Butz v. Economou, supra, at 506; see Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S., at 410 ("For people in Bivens' shoes, it is damages or nothing"). It is this recognition that has required the denial of absolute immunity to most public officers. At the same time, however, it cannot be disputed seriously that claims frequently run against the innocent as well as the guilty -- at a cost not only to the defendant officials, but to society as a whole.*fn22 These social costs include the expenses of litigation, the diversion of official energy from pressing public issues, and the deterrence of able citizens from acceptance of public office. Finally, there is the danger that fear of being sued will "dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible [public officials], in the unflinching discharge of their duties." Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579, 581 (CA2 1949), cert. denied, 339 U.S. 949 (1950).
In identifying qualified immunity as the best attainable accommodation of competing values, in Butz, supra, at 507-508, as in Scheuer, 416 U.S., at 245-248, we relied on the assumption that this standard would permit "[insubstantial] lawsuits [to] be quickly terminated." 438 U.S., at 507-508; see Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 765 (1980) (POWELL, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).*fn23 Yet petitioners advance persuasive arguments that the dismissal of insubstantial lawsuits without trial -- a factor presupposed in the balance of competing interests struck by
[ 457 U.S. Page 815]
our prior cases -- requires an adjustment of the "good faith" standard established by our decisions.
Qualified or "good faith" immunity is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded by a defendant official. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635 (1980).*fn24 Decisions of this Court have established that the "good faith" defense has both an "objective" and a "subjective" aspect. The objective element involves a presumptive knowledge of and respect for "basic, unquestioned constitutional rights." Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 322 (1975). The subjective component refers to "permissible intentions." Ibid. Characteristically the Court has defined these elements by identifying the circumstances in which qualified immunity would not be available. Referring both to the objective and subjective elements, we have held that qualified immunity would be defeated if an official "knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took within his sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the [plaintiff], or if he took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury . . . ." Ibid. (emphasis added).*fn25
The subjective element of the good-faith defense frequently has proved incompatible with our admonition in Butz
[ 457 U.S. Page 816]
that insubstantial claims should not proceed to trial. Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that disputed questions of fact ordinarily may not be decided on motions for summary judgment.*fn26 And an official's subjective good faith has been considered to be a question of fact that some courts have regarded as inherently requiring resolution by a jury.*fn27
In the context of Butz' attempted balancing of competing values, it now is clear that substantial costs attend the litigation of the subjective good faith of government officials. Not only are there the general costs of subjecting officials to the risks of trial -- distraction of officials from their governmental duties, inhibition of discretionary action, and deterrence of able people from public service. There are special costs to "subjective" inquiries of this kind. Immunity generally is available only to officials performing discretionary functions. In contrast with the thought processes accompanying "ministerial" tasks, the judgments surrounding discretionary action almost inevitably are influenced by the decisionmaker's experiences, values, and emotions. These variables explain in part why questions of subjective intent so rarely can be decided by summary judgment. Yet they also frame a background
[ 457 U.S. Page 817]
in which there often is no clear end to the relevant evidence. Judicial inquiry into subjective motivation therefore may entail broad-ranging discovery and the deposing of numerous persons, including an official's professional colleagues.*fn28 Inquiries of this kind can be peculiarly disruptive of effective government.*fn29
Consistently with the balance at which we aimed in Butz, we conclude today that bare allegations of malice should not suffice to subject government officials either to the costs of
[ 457 U.S. Page 818]
trial or to the burdens of broad-reaching discovery. We therefore hold that government officials performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. See Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 565 (1978); Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S., at 322.*fn30
Reliance on the objective reasonableness of an official's conduct, as measured by reference to clearly established law,*fn31 should avoid excessive disruption of government and permit the resolution of many insubstantial claims on summary judgment. On summary judgment, the judge appropriately may determine, not only the currently applicable law, but whether that law was clearly established at the time an action occurred.*fn32 If the law at that time was not clearly established, an official could not reasonably be expected to anticipate subsequent legal developments, nor could he fairly be said to "know" that the law forbade conduct not previously identified as unlawful. Until this threshold immunity question is resolved, discovery should not be allowed. If the law was clearly established, the immunity defense ordinarily
[ 457 U.S. Page 819]
should fail, since a reasonably competent public official should know the law governing his conduct. Nevertheless, if the official pleading the defense claims extraordinary circumstances and can prove that he neither knew nor should have known of the relevant legal standard, the defense should be sustained. But again, the defense would turn primarily on objective factors.
By defining the limits of qualified immunity essentially in objective terms, we provide no license to lawless conduct. The public interest in deterrence of unlawful conduct and in compensation of victims remains protected by a test that focuses on the objective legal reasonableness of an official's acts. Where an official could be expected to know that certain conduct would violate statutory or constitutional rights, he should be made to hesitate; and a person who suffers injury caused by such conduct may have a cause of action.*fn33 But where an official's duties legitimately require action in which clearly established rights are not implicated, the public interest may be better served by action taken "with independence and without fear of consequences." Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967).*fn34
In this case petitioners have asked us to hold that the respondent's pretrial showings were insufficient to survive their motion for summary judgment.*fn35 We think it appropriate,
[ 457 U.S. Page 820]
however, to remand the case to the District Court for its reconsideration of this issue in light of this opinion.*fn36 The trial court is more familiar with the record so far developed and also is better situated to make any such further findings as may be necessary.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further action consistent with this opinion.
Vacated and remanded.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, concurring.
I agree with the substantive standard announced by the Court today, imposing liability when a public-official defendant
[ 457 U.S. Page 821]
"knew or should have known" of the constitutionally violative effect of his actions. Ante, at 815, 819. This standard would not allow the official who actually knows that he was violating the law to escape liability for his actions, even if he could not "reasonably have been expected" to know what he actually did know. Ante, at 819, n. 33. Thus the clever and unusually well-informed violator of constitutional rights will not evade just punishment for his crimes. I also agree that this standard applies "across the board," to all "government officials performing discretionary functions." Ante, at 818. I write separately only to note that given this standard, it seems inescapable to me that some measure of discovery may sometimes be required to determine exactly what a public-official defendant did "know" at the time of his actions. In this respect the issue before us is very similar to that addressed in Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153 (1979), in which the Court observed that "[to] erect an impenetrable barrier to the plaintiff's use of such evidence on his side of the case is a matter of some substance, particularly when defendants themselves are prone to assert their [good faith] . . . ." Id., at 170. Of course, as the Court has already noted, ante, at 818-819, summary judgment will be readily available to public-official defendants whenever the state of the law was so ambiguous at the time of the alleged violation that it could not have been "known" then, and thus liability could not ensue. In my view, summary judgment will also be readily available whenever the plaintiff cannot prove, as a threshold matter, that a violation of his constitutional rights actually occurred. I see no reason why discovery of defendants' "knowledge" should not be deferred by the trial judge pending decision of any motion of defendants for summary judgment on grounds such as these. Cf. Herbert v. Lando, supra, at 180, n. 4 (POWELL, J., concurring).
JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, JUSTICE MARSHALL, and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concurring.
We join the Court's opinion but, having dissented in Nixon
[ 457 U.S. Page 822]
v. Fitzgerald, ante, p. 731, we disassociate ourselves from any implication in the Court's opinion in the present case that Nixon v. Fitzgerald was correctly decided.
JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concurring.
At such time as a majority of the Court is willing to re-examine our holding in Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), I shall join in that undertaking with alacrity. But until that time comes, I agree that the Court's opinion in this case properly disposes of the issues presented, and I therefore join it.
CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, dissenting.
The Court today decides in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ante, p. 731, what has been taken for granted for 190 years, that it is implicit in the Constitution that a President of the United States has absolute immunity from civil suits arising out of official acts as Chief Executive. I agree fully that absolute immunity for official acts of the President is, like executive privilege, "fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution." United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 708 (1974).*fn1
In this case the Court decides that senior aides of the President do not have derivative immunity from the President. I am at a loss, however, to reconcile this conclusion with our holding in Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972). The Court reads Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), as resolving that question; I do not. Butz is clearly distinguishable.*fn2
[ 457 U.S. Page 823]
In Gravel we held that it is implicit in the Constitution that aides of Members of Congress have absolute immunity for acts performed for Members in relation to their legislative function. We viewed the aides' immunity as deriving from the Speech or Debate Clause, which provides that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place." Art. I, § 6, cl. 1 (emphasis added). Read literally, the Clause would, of course, limit absolute immunity only to the Member and only to speech and debate within the Chamber. But we have read much more into this plain language. The Clause says nothing about "legislative acts" outside the Chambers, but we concluded that the Constitution grants absolute immunity for legislative acts not only "in either House" but in committees and conferences and in reports on legislative activities.
Nor does the Clause mention immunity for congressional aides. Yet, going far beyond any words found in the Constitution itself, we held that a Member's aides who implement policies and decisions of the Member are entitled to the same absolute immunity as a Member. It is hardly an overstatement to say that we thus avoided a "literalistic approach," Gravel, supra, at 617, and instead looked to the structure of the Constitution and the evolution of the function of the Legislative Branch. In short, we drew this immunity for legislative aides from a functional analysis of the legislative process in the context of the Constitution taken as a whole and in light of 20th-century realities. Neither Presidents nor Members of Congress can, as they once did, perform all their constitutional duties personally.*fn3
[ 457 U.S. Page 824]
We very properly recognized in Gravel that the central purpose of a Member's absolute immunity would be "diminished and frustrated" if the legislative aides were not also protected by the same broad immunity. Speaking for the Court in Gravel, JUSTICE WHITE agreed with the Court of Appeals that
"it is literally impossible, in view of the complexities of the modern legislative process, with Congress almost constantly in session and matters of legislative concern constantly proliferating, for Members of Congress to perform their legislative tasks without the help of aides and assistants; that the day-to-day work of such aides is so critical to the Members' performance that they must be treated as the latter's alter egos ; and that if they are not so recognized, the central role of the Speech or Debate Clause -- to prevent intimidation of legislators by the Executive and accountability before a possibly hostile judiciary . . . -- will inevitably be diminished and frustrated." 408 U.S., at 616-617 (emphasis added).
I joined in that analysis and continue to agree with it, for without absolute immunity for these "elbow aides," who are indeed "alter egos," a Member could not effectively discharge all of the assigned constitutional functions of a modern legislator.
The Court has made this reality a matter of our constitutional jurisprudence. How can we conceivably hold that a President of the United States, who represents a vastly larger constituency than does any Member of Congress, should not have "alter egos" with comparable immunity? To perform the constitutional duties assigned to the Executive would be "literally impossible, in view of the complexities of the modern [Executive] process, . . . without the help of
[ 457 U.S. Page 825]
aides and assistants."*fn4 Id., at 616. These words reflect the precise analysis of Gravel, and this analysis applies with at least as much force to a President. The primary layer of senior aides of a President -- like a Senator's "alter egos" -- are literally at a President's elbow, with offices a few feet or at most a few hundred feet from his own desk. The President, like a Member of Congress, may see those personal aides many times in one day. They are indeed the President's "arms" and "fingers" to aid in performing his constitutional duty to see "that the laws [are] faithfully executed." Like a Member of Congress, but on a vastly greater scale, the President cannot personally implement a fraction of his own policies and day-to-day decisions.*fn5
For some inexplicable reason the Court declines to recognize the realities in the workings of the Office of a President, despite the Court's cogent recognition in Gravel concerning the realities of the workings of 20th-century Members of Congress. Absent equal protection for a President's aides, how will Presidents be free from the risks of "intimidation . . . by [Congress] and accountability before a possibly hostile
[ 457 U.S. Page 826]
judiciary?" Gravel, 408 U.S., at 617. Under today's holding in this case the functioning of the Presidency will inevitably be "diminished and frustrated." Ibid.
Precisely the same public policy considerations on which the Court now relies in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, and that we relied on only recently in Gravel, are fully applicable to senior Presidential aides. The Court's opinion in Nixon v. Fitzgerald correctly points out that if a President were subject to suit, awareness of personal vulnerability to suit "frequently could distract a President from his public duties, to the detriment of not only the President and his office but also the Nation that the Presidency was designed to serve." Ante, at 753. This same negative incentive will permeate the inner workings of the Office of the President if the Chief Executive's "alter egos" are not protected derivatively from the immunity of the President. In addition, exposure to civil liability for official acts will result in constant judicial questioning, through judicial proceedings and pretrial discovery, into the inner workings of the Presidential Office beyond that necessary to maintain the traditional checks and balances of our constitutional structure.*fn6
I challenge the Court and the dissenters in Nixon v. Fitzgerald who join in the instant holding to say that the effectiveness of Presidential aides will not "inevitably be diminished and frustrated," Gravel, supra, at 617, if they must weigh every act and decision in relation to the risks of future
[ 457 U.S. Page 827]
lawsuits. The Gravel Court took note of the burdens on congressional aides: the stress of long hours, heavy responsibilities, constant exposure to harassment of the political arena. Is the Court suggesting the stresses are less for Presidential aides? By construing the Constitution to give only qualified immunity to senior Presidential aides we give those key "alter egos" only lawsuits, winnable lawsuits perhaps, but lawsuits nonetheless, with stress and effort that will disperse and drain their energies and their purses.*fn7
In this Court we witness the new filing of as many as 100 cases a week, many utterly frivolous and even bizarre. Yet the defending party in many of these cases may have spent or become liable for thousands of dollars in litigation expense. Hundreds of thousands of other cases are disposed of without reaching this Court. When we see the myriad irresponsible and frivolous cases regularly filed in American courts, the magnitude of the potential risks attending acceptance of public office emerges. Those potential risks inevitably will be a factor in discouraging able men and women from entering public service.
We -- judges collectively -- have held that the common law provides us with absolute immunity for ourselves with respect to judicial acts, however erroneous or ill-advised. See, e. g., Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978). Are the lowest ranking of 27,000 or more judges, thousands of prosecutors, and thousands of congressional aides -- an aggregate
[ 457 U.S. Page 828]
of not less than 75,000 in all -- entitled to greater protection than two senior aides of a President?
Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), does not dictate that senior Presidential aides be given only qualified immunity. Butz held only that a Cabinet officer exercising discretion was not entitled to absolute immunity; we need not abandon that holding. A senior Presidential aide works more intimately with the President on a daily basis than does a Cabinet officer, directly implementing Presidential decisions literally from hour to hour.
In his dissent today in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, JUSTICE WHITE states that the "Court now applies the dissenting view in Butz to the Office of the President." Ante, at 764. However, this suggests that a President and his Cabinet officers, who serve only "during the pleasure of the President," are on the same plane constitutionally. It wholly fails to distinguish the role of a President or his "elbow aides" from the role of Cabinet officers, who are department heads rather than "alter egos." It would be in no sense inconsistent to hold that a President's personal aides have greater immunity than Cabinet officers.
The Court's analysis in Gravel demonstrates that the question of derivative immunity does not and should not depend on a person's rank or position in the hierarchy, but on the function performed by the person and the relationship of that person to the superior. Cabinet officers clearly outrank United States Attorneys, yet qualified immunity is accorded the former and absolute immunity the latter; rank is important only to the extent that the rank determines the function to be performed. The function of senior Presidential aides, as the "alter egos" of the President, is an integral, inseparable part of the function of the President.*fn8 JUSTICE WHITE
[ 457 U.S. Page 829]
was clearly correct in Gravel, stating that Members of Congress could not "perform their legislative tasks without the help of aides and assistants; [and] that the day-to-day work of such aides is so critical to the Members' performance that they must be treated as the latter's alter egos . . . ." 408 U.S., at 616-617.
By ignoring Gravel and engaging in a wooden application of Butz, the Court significantly undermines the functioning of the Office of the President. Under the Court's opinion in Nixon today it is clear that Presidential immunity derives from the Constitution as much as congressional immunity comes from that source. Can there rationally be one rule for congressional aides and another for Presidential aides simply because the initial absolute immunity of each derives from different aspects of the Constitution? I find it inexplicable why the Court makes no effort to demonstrate why the Chief Executive of the Nation should not be assured that senior staff aides will have the same protection as the aides of Members of the House and Senate.
* Louis Alan Clark filed a brief for the Government Accountability Project of the Institute for Policy Studies as amicus curiae urging affirmance.
Briefs of amici curiae were filed by Solicitor General Lee for the United States; by Roger J. Marzulla and William H. Mellor III for the Mountain States Legal Foundation; by John C. Armor and H. Richard Mayberry for the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, Inc.; and by Thomas J. Madden for Senator Orrin G. Hatch et al.