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Butz v. Economou

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that high officials of the executive branch, with rare exceptions, do not have absolute immunity from civil suits.


Economou, a commodities dealer, filed a civil suit for $32 million, claiming that Secretary of Agriculture Butz had entered a false claim against him because of his criticisms of the department's policies. Citing Supreme Court precedents, Butz responded that he had absolute immunity from such a suit. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, however, Chief Justice Byron R. White declared that executive officials are entitled only to qualified good-faith immunity. Thus, officials are liable for damages if their illegal actions actually deprived a person of clearly established rights or if they acted with malicious intention in an attempt to cause harm or to deprive a person of constitutional rights. The Court allowed for exceptions for prosecutors and judicial officials within administrative agencies. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982), the Court modified the Economou ruling by eliminating the malicious intention test as a basis for bringing suits against officials. In Harlow's companion case, Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the Court found that the president did have absolute immunity for any actions stemming from his official duties.