A federal appeals court in Manhattan handed former President Donald Trump a procedural victory Tuesday in a defamation lawsuit, after famed columnist E. Jean Carroll claimed that Trump had raped her in the 1990s.
In a two-to-one decision on Sept. 27, the panel on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court erred when it ruled that Carroll could sue Trump for defamatory statements during his presidency, given that a federal law, known as the Westfall Act, shields government employees from liability in work-related incidents.
Carroll, 78, sued Trump in 2019, claiming the Republican sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s in a dressing room at a Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan. Because the alleged attack happened decades ago, Carroll was originally barred from suing over sexual battery, pushing her to sue for defamation over allegedly disparaging comments Trump made about the rape allegation.
Trump denied her allegation at the time and accused her of using false claims as a way to promote her book. “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened,” the-then president told The Hill in an interview at the White House in June 2019.
The D.C. Court of Appeals is now asked to weigh in on whether Trump was acting within the scope of his presidential duties when he denied raping Carroll and dismissed her during the interview. If Trump was, he would be entitled to immunity from the lawsuit, according to the ruling by the 2nd Circuit judges. And while the U.S. government can be sued over some wrongdoing by its employees, it is immune from defamation lawsuits, which would mean Carroll’s suit would fail.
In a majority opinion written by Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi on Tuesday, two members of the 2nd Circuit’s three-judge panel declined to further address the defamation action while the matter was “of extreme public importance.”
“We do not pass judgment or express any view as to whether Trump’s public statements were indeed defamatory or whether the sexual assault allegations had, in fact, occurred,” the judges said.
Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba, meanwhile, welcomed the decision, saying it “will protect the ability of all future presidents to effectively govern without hindrance.”
By Rita Li