WASHINGTON — A District of Columbia court wrestled on Tuesday over whether Donald J. Trump was acting within his capacity as president when he made disparaging comments about a writer who had accused him of rape more than two decades ago.
The arguments, made over more than two and a half hours before nine judges, largely focused on technical legal issues related to when, under District of Columbia law, a person should be interpreted as acting as an employee of an organization — in this case, the federal government — rather than a private individual.
How the court rules will likely determine the future, if any, of the case brought by the writer, E. Jean Carroll, who has sued Mr. Trump for defamation. Any decision could also have broader consequences for other government officials because a federal law essentially protects them from being sued for actions within the scope of their jobs.
No decision is expected for several weeks, and it was unclear from the arguments how the court was leaning.
A federal appeals court in New York had asked the District of Columbia Court of Appeals — a local court akin to a state’s supreme court — to clarify how its law on employer liability applied to Mr. Trump’s remarks. But several judges expressed concern about how they could do so without a more detailed factual record that would illuminate Mr. Trump’s motivation when he discussed Ms. Carroll in a derogatory way.
Judge Catharine Friend Easterly noted that in employer liability cases, there is typically a jury verdict and trial record before the court. In this instance, there is only a complaint by Ms. Carroll. Judge John P. Howard also asked whether the matter warranted more detailed fact-finding.
But lawyers for the Justice Department and for Mr. Trump argued that what is in the public record now — that Mr. Trump was the president at the time and that his comments were in response to reporters’ questions — was sufficient to say that he was acting as a government employee.
A lawyer for Mr. Trump, Alina Habba, also denied Ms. Carroll’s accusations.
But a lawyer for Ms. Carroll, Joshua Matz, argued that the court should rule that Mr. Trump was acting outside the scope of his employment “in defaming Ms. Carroll because he did so for personal reasons rather than to further the interests of the United States.”
Several judges also voiced concern that the oddities of the case could distort the District of Columbia’s law, which seeks to hold ordinary employers responsible when their employees cause people harm as part of their job but not when they are acting on their own.
The defamation lawsuit traces back to 2019, when Ms. Carroll published a memoir accusing Mr. Trump of assaulting her in a dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in the mid-1990s. Mr. Trump called her a liar and said she was “not my type.” She then sued him for defamation.
A year later, the Justice Department took over Mr. Trump’s defense, invoking the Westfall Act, which allows the federal government to step in as the defendant in lawsuits against federal officials. If a court approves such a substitution, the lawsuits must then be dismissed as a matter of sovereign immunity.
Since then, the legal case has been consumed by a fight over whether the Justice Department’s intervention was justified. Lawyers for Ms. Carroll have contended that Mr. Trump was acting as a private citizen. Lawyers for Mr. Trump have argued that he spoke to the news media while in office, so he was acting in his capacity as president.
In October 2020, a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan, Lewis A. Kaplan, rejected the Justice Department’s intervention, ruling that Mr. Trump had talked about Ms. Carroll as a private citizen and so could be sued for defamation.
But in September 2022, an appeals court in New York called that ruling into question. By a 2-to-1 vote, a three-judge panel asked the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to first determine whether, under D.C. law and precedents, Mr. Trump was acting as president when he made his comments about Ms. Carroll.
While the ruling could determine the future of Ms. Carroll’s defamation case, it will not be the final word on what has become a protracted legal battle between her and Mr. Trump.
In November, the state of New York changed a law to allow lawsuits over claims of sexual assaults that took place more than 20 years earlier. Ms. Carroll immediately filed a separate lawsuit accusing Mr. Trump of rape and seeking damages.