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  • Supreme Court Report

  •   Jones v. Clinton: Round One

    The Washington Post
    Monday, January 13, 1997; Page A16


    Don't ezpect a thorough airing of Paula Jones's charges against the president when the Supreme Court turns to her case this morning. There will be no detailed discussion of the events alleged to have taken place some five-plus years ago in a Little Rock hotel room. That scenario forms the basis of the sexual harassment suit at issue. But the question before the court is a preliminary and straightforward constitutional one: Can a sitting president be sued civilly for misconduct unrelated to his official duties and that occurred before he took office, or must any such trial be postponed until he leaves office?

    Fortunately, there is no precedent for a suit of this kind against a president of the United States, sitting, aspiring or retired. Mr. Clinton's lawyers have been at great pains to avoid this litigation, even to the extent of arguing, at one time, that as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he was entitled to a moratorium on civil actions until his service was completed. But now that the election has been held, the tension in the White House has eased and the theory of the defense has become less complicated. It boils down to an assertion that the president -- any president -- is simply too busy to deal with civil suits and that for the good of the nation any actions against him should be held in abeyance until he leaves office and has more time. The lawyers warn of a future in which the leader of the free world is so entangled with depositions, testimony and cooling his heels in a courtroom corridor that he won't be able to handle a sudden foreign or domestic crisis or other important business.

    That's not the way it works. Frivolous lawsuits -- especially those filed against the president of the United States -- can be disposed of quickly in the lower courts. Concessions can and have been made to accommodate the president's schedule. This case in particular is an uncomplicated dispute that should not involve the chief executive in drawn-out depositions or much time in court. It's a simple question of believing her or believing him, not an antitrust matter that could go on for years. Conversely, establishing a precedent protecting all presidents from lawsuits while in office would be unfair to plaintiffs. Memories fail over time. Witnesses die. Evidence gets lost or destroyed. In civil actions involving divorce and child custody, for example, lives are on hold and children grow and change if court orders are postponed for four or eight years.

    If Mrs. Jones has to wait until the next century for her day in court, justice, for her, will have been postponed to the point of denial. The president deserves respect and cooperation on scheduling from the courts. But like every other citizen, he isn't entitled to a four-year free pass.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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