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N.Y. Appeals Court Rules Trump Can’t Avoid Summer Zervos’ Defamation Suit

President Donald Trump listens to a
Evan Vucci/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is not immune from a defamation lawsuit brought by former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, even as his lawyers argued that the case should at least be deferred until the end of his term, a New York appeals court ruled on Thursday.

Trump’s attorneys had argued that the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution shielded Trump from the claim, but Justice Dianne Renwick wrote that the clause was “never intended to deprive a state court of its authority to decide cases and controversies under the state’s constitution.”

She wrote that “federal law supersedes state law with which it conflicts, but it does not provide that the President himself is immune from state law that does not conflict with federal law. Since there is no federal law conflicting with or displacing this defamation action, the Supremacy Clause does not provide a basis for immunizing the President from state court civil damages actions.”

Less than a month before the 2016 election, Zervos held a press conference in which she claimed that Trump made unwanted sexual advances toward her as she sought his professional advice. In her lawsuit, she claims that she was defamed after Trump characterized her allegations as lies.

Trump’s legal team filed a motion to dismiss the case, but a trial court judge denied it. The president’s lawyers then appealed.

The judges cited the Supreme Court decision in Clinton vs. Jones, in which the high court rejected President Bill Clinton’s efforts to dismiss Paula Jones’ claims of sexual misconduct. They ruled that he was not immune from a federal lawsuit, leaving open the question of a claim against the president filed in a state court.

“More than 20 years later, the current sitting President attempts to shield himself from consequences for his alleged unofficial misconduct by relying upon the constitutional protection of the Presidency,” Renwick wrote.

She was joined in her opinion by Justices Troy Webber and Cynthia Kern. Justices Angela Mazzarelli and Peter Tom dissented.

Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s attorney, said that they would take the case to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

“We respectfully disagree with the majority decision in the Appellate Division,” he said in a statement. “We believe 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.”

Mariann Wang, attorney for Zervos, said in a statement, “We are very pleased that the [court] has affirmed once again that Defendant ‘is not above the law.’  The case has proceeded in the trial court and discovery continues.  We look forward to proving that Ms. Zervos told the truth about Defendant’s unwanted sexual groping and holding him accountable for his malicious lies.”