NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyers told a New York state judge on Tuesday that under the U.S. Constitution she had no jurisdiction over the president and therefore urged her to dismiss a defamation lawsuit by a woman who has accused Trump of sexual harassment.
The lawsuit by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” contends that Trump’s denials of her accusations amounted to false and defamatory statements. Being “branded a liar” by Trump, the lawsuit said, has harmed her and her business.
Trump’s lawyers, led by Marc Kasowitz, said the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause prevented the judge from letting Zervos’s lawsuit proceed in a state court.
The hour-long hearing was held in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, where Zervos’s lawyers responded that there was no legal precedent preventing a state court from ruling on the conduct of a president outside his official duties.
“The motion today has nothing to do with putting anyone above the law,” Kasowitz told Justice Jennifer Schecter. Under the Supremacy Clause, he said, “a state court may not exercise jurisdiction over the president of the United States while he or she is in office.”
Schecter occasionally stopped Kasowitz to ask him to clarify his views on her jurisdiction. She asked him if it mattered that she would not be directing the president in his official duties, only potentially ruling on whether his comments as a candidate defamed Zervos.
Kasowitz said it made no difference.
“What that means is the president being haled into court, and once the president is haled into court there are innumerable obligations that flow from that,” he said, saying this would amount to inappropriate “control” over the president.
Mariann Wang, the lead lawyer for Zervos, argued, “There is no case that holds that a federal official cannot be held to account in a state court.”
Trump’s lawyers did not dispute this.
Wang acknowledged that the president holds a unique position but noted that even the president has downtime. They could, for example, meet Trump during one of his weekend visits to his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida to record a video deposition, she suggested.
The judge said she would rule later.
Trump’s lawyers have said in court filings that Zervos is making false, self-contradictory and politically motivated accusations and that the president’s remarks were “non-actionable fiery rhetoric.”
Zervos has accused Trump of groping her during meetings in 2007. She filed her lawsuit in January, three days before Trump’s inauguration. In March, she subpoenaed Trump’s presidential campaign for any documents concerning similar allegations against him.
Trump has said accusations by Zervos and other women who last year accused him of sexual harassment are false.
If the case went ahead, it could lead to Trump being compelled to hand over any documents from his campaign related to any accusations of sexual impropriety made against him.
Zervos’s lawyers, including Gloria Allred, have cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Clinton v. Jones, which allowed former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton to proceed in 1997 while he was still U.S. president.
The decision led to Clinton’s impeachment after he lied under oath about his sexual relationship with another woman, Monica Lewinsky.
Trump’s lawyers have said that Clinton v. Jones only applies to lawsuits in federal courts, not state courts.
Zervos met Trump after becoming a contestant on NBC’s “The Apprentice” in 2005. She has accused Trump of kissing her against her will at his New York office in 2007 and later groping her in a hotel in Beverley Hills after she met with him about a possible job.
She was one of several women who made accusations against Trump after the emergence last year of a conversation caught on an open microphone in 2005 in which he spoke in vulgar terms about trying to have sex with women.
Trump has said the comments amounted to “locker room banter,” and his campaign issued a statement in which he apologized if anyone was offended.
Since the lawsuit was filed, numerous accusations of sexual misconduct have been made against powerful men in politics, media and entertainment.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold