Trump Has Faced Many Lawsuits. Will Litigation Influence His Presidency? | KUOW News and Information

Trump Has Faced Many Lawsuits. Will Litigation Influence His Presidency?

Nov 21, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 12:31 pm

When comedian Bill Maher offered $5 million to Donald Trump if he could prove he wasn't the son of an orangutan, Trump did something he's done many times before: He sued.

During Trump's decades-long business career, the president-elect has been named in more than 4,000 suits, either as a plaintiff or defendant, in everything from branding and contract disputes to defamation cases, according to a report in USA Today last summer. Close to half the cases involve gamblers who hadn't paid their debts at Trump's casinos.

"The number of lawsuits that may now be in existence, I think, are way ahead of anything we might ever again expect of any president of the United States," says Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School.

Last week, Trump agreed to do something he had vowed not to do, when he settled a series of suits involving his real estate seminar Trump University for $25 million, just as the case was about to go to trial. The program was accused of defrauding participants after promising to teach them the secrets of a successful real estate career.

"I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country," Trump tweeted over the weekend.

In fact, the sheer number of outstanding lawsuits that Trump and his businesses face could become a major problem during his presidency, says Saikrishna Prakash, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on the separation of powers. As many as 75 civil suits involving Trump are pending, Prakash notes.

"The problem that we face with Mr. Trump is that he's got so many lawsuits that he could very well be distracted from taking care of the nation's business by a concern with his personal finances," Prakash says.

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Prakash recently proposed that Congress approve a law delaying lawsuits during a president's administration, much as it delays civil suits against members of the armed forces during their service.

Prakash acknowledges that such a law might be on uncertain legal ground.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton argued that a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones should be delayed until he left office. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, and the case set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Clinton's impeachment.

"The court predicted it wouldn't really disrupt the president or take too much of his time. And I suppose that was possible in that case, but it turned out to be totally wrong," Prakash says.

But delaying lawsuits until a president is out of office raises questions about fairness, NYU's Gillers says.

"If a plaintiff is suing Trump, he or she has a right to a day in court and making that person wait four years or three years or two years for relief is simply unacceptable," he says.

Even as the Supreme Court allowed private lawsuits against presidents to proceed, it also gave lower courts significant discretion to ease the burden on the White House if possible, Gillers notes.

For example, presidents can ask for short delays in suits when the nation's business demands it. They can also testify in depositions, instead of having to appear in court in person, Gillers says.

"Yes, it's a distraction, but the president — although president 24 hours a day, seven days a week — does do other things. He does have a private life, and so he does simply have to factor this in to his private life," Gillers adds.

The Supreme Court's ruling applies only to federal courts, and state courts could choose to make life a lot more difficult for the president. That's unlikely, Gillers says, but as with so much else about the Trump presidency, the outcome is unpredictable, and Americans could one day see their president testifying in a court trial.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump on Friday agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits claiming that his real estate seminar known as Trump University cheated thousands of customers. Trump says he doesn't have time to deal with the suits now that he's headed to the White House. But he faces numerous other suits that could distract from his work as president. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Over the past three decades, Donald Trump has been involved in a lot of lawsuits. USA Today found that he's been named as a plaintiff or defendant in more than 4,000 suits. Stephen Gillers is a professor at NYU Law School.

STEPHEN GILLERS: The number of lawsuits that may now be in existence I think are way ahead of anything we might ever again expect of any president of the United States.

ZARROLI: There are suits over branding, contract disputes and tax issues. He's sued journalists, political groups and a former Miss Pennsylvania. Bill Maher offered $5 million to anyone who could prove Trump's father wasn't an orangutan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL MAHER: The color of his hair...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: ...And color of an orange orangutan is the only two things in nature of the same color.

ZARROLI: Trump submitted his birth certificate and then sued Maher, demanding the $5 million. He later dropped the suit. University of Virginia law professor Saikrishna Prakash has proposed that Congress pass a law delaying lawsuits while a president is in office.

SAIKRISHNA PRAKASH: The problem that we face with Mr. Trump is that he has got so many lawsuits that he could very well be distracted from taking care of the nation's business by a concern with his personal finances.

ZARROLI: But as Prakash acknowledges, there's a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORMER PRES BILL CLINTON: If is means is and never has been, that is not - that's one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.

ZARROLI: During his presidency, Bill Clinton had to deal with a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones. His lawyers argued that the suit would distract him from his work as president. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the case could go forward, which ultimately led to Clinton's impeachment.

PRAKASH: The court predicted it wouldn't really disrupt the president or take too much of his time. And I suppose that was possible in that case, but they turned out to be totally wrong.

ZARROLI: Prakash says there's a precedent for delaying suits. A law allows members of the armed forces to be protected temporarily against many civil suits. The Trump Organization declined to comment about that idea, but Stephen Gillers says delaying a suit against a president would be wrong.

GILLERS: If a plaintiff is suing Trump, he or she has a right to a day in court. And making that person wait four years or three years or two years for relief is simply unacceptable.

ZARROLI: Gillers notes that the Supreme Court in the Paula Jones case allowed presidents to delay suits for short periods, to take foreign trips, for example. And they aren't required to testify in court, which takes time. They can do so through depositions. So Gillers says presidents can usually make time to deal with suits.

GILLERS: Yes, it's a distraction, but the president, although president 24 hours a day, seven days a week, does do other things. He does have a private life. And so he simply has to factor this in to his private life.

ZARROLI: Gillers does point out that the Paula Jones ruling applied only to federal courts. Though they probably won't, state courts can make life a lot more difficult for a president. But as with so much about the Trump presidency, the outcome is unpredictable. And Americans could one day see their president testifying in a court trial. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.