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  • Supreme Court Report

  •   Presidential Immunity and a Duck Out of Water

    By Lloyd Grove
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 14, 1997; Page C01

    The occasion was genuinely "historic" – though not in the high-toned, soaring sense that President Clinton aspires to when he is talking, say, about his appointments to the Supreme Court. Before it was over, Robert Bennett, the president's highly remunerated lawyer – at the court yesterday to argue the constitutional issues of Clinton v. Jones – was chased by a man in a duck suit.

    Outside on the slippery marble yesterday morning, protesters carried placards reading "I Believe Paula" and (this one held by half a dozen men in Clinton masks wearing trench coats and boxer shorts) "Flashers Support Clinton." A long line of citizens, many of them law students and a few there since 4 a.m., waited to be let in.

    Inside the cathedral-like courtroom, nine black-robed justices heard edifying arguments about the separation of powers, the demands of presidential duty and the imperatives of jurisprudence.

    But nobody was distracted from that . . . thing . . . in the middle of all the handsome rhetoric, floating like a rat in a punch bowl. We're speaking of the incident alleged to have occurred in an Arkansas hotel suite six years ago, when then-Gov. Bill Clinton – or so his accusers claim – made unwanted sexual advances to a 24-year-old state employee named Paula Corbin, known since her marriage as Paula Jones. The court will determine whether Jones can sue the president while he is in office. Her lawyers say yes; Bennett and Solicitor General Walter Dellinger elegantly disagree.

    Neither Jones nor Clinton was present for the arguments. The closest thing to a litigant was Stephen M. Jones Sr., the father-in-law of Clinton's accuser. "Basically I'm just here supporting Paula," said Jones, a somber, soft-spoken man who described himself as the manager of a warehouse distribution company in Memphis. "I really don't care to comment more than that," he added. "We're just hoping that Paula will soon get her day in court."

    The hearing to determine when she will was brimming with legal arcana. Justice Antonin Scalia, as usual, was the most talkative of the panel, cracking jokes about such issues as the "commerce clause," which got a huge laugh from the lawyers present but left many laypeople scratching their heads.

    Justice Clarence Thomas, as usual, was the only jurist who had nothing to say during the arguments. He fidgeted on the bench, puffing out his cheeks and blowing air in the universal sign of weariness, or rocked back in his chair, eyes directed heavenward. Occasionally Thomas could be seen trading whispers with fellow Justice Stephen Breyer.

    Attendance from the White House was sparse. One departing Clinton aide and two former ones – White House Counsel Jack Quinn, erstwhile presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos and two-time counsel Lloyd Cutler, respectively – were seen but not heard.

    After the hearing, members of the audience filed out into the Great Hall, making a small racket. A Supreme Court guard emitted a loud, terrifying "Ssshhhhh!," silencing everybody within earshot.

    On the steps outside, Jones's lawyer Gilbert Davis made his way to the microphones to spin his case as a worker spread grains of salt on the ice. "Step up, Gil," a reporter exhorted, "and answer the questions colorfully."

    He didn't.

    Another Jones lawyer, Joseph Cammarata, bridled when a reporter suggested that he was in it for the fame. "Let me tell you something, my friend, I haven't figured out how to eat newspapers," Cammarata said, insisting that he has made a huge financial sacrifice to represent Jones. "If you know anybody who wants to contribute," he began, and then recited an 800 number.

    Media mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, along with his wife, National Gallery of Art official Marla Prather, was found standing in a marble hallway chatting with Bennett.

    And what brought Zuckerman to court?

    "The glory of the law," Zuckerman said, and then lapsed into Latin (which was Greek to this reporter).

    And how about Bennett: Was said glory also responsible for his presence?

    "If there was ever a time to be circumspect," Bennett demurred, "this is it." Presumably that meant that he wasn't scheduled to go on Imus yesterday.

    Bennett's escape route took him past the protesters. One group, representing the so-called "Clinton Investigative Commission," which a spokeswoman described as a privately funded citizens organization, included the men wearing trench coats and boxers.

    Bennett smiled as a cheer erupted, but his smile faded as he realized it was derisive, punctuated by shouts of "Stop Ducking! Stop the Sleaze!"

    The yelling came from a young man in a duck suit – a fluffy bright-yellow affair with orange webbed feet. He pursued Bennett to his Lincoln Town Car and, as the lawyer climbed behind the safety of its tinted windows, he held up a sign. "Stop Ducking Responsibility, Mr. President," it said.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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