Paula Jones, 9-0
The Washington Post
The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in the Paula Jones case yesterday and the certainty with which the president's arguments were dismissed lent strength to the opinion and left little room for maneuver at the White House. Using phrases including "unpersuaded by petitioner's historical evidence," "cannot be sustained on the basis of precedent" and "no support for an immunity for unofficial conduct," the court turned aside arguments that the Constitution affords the president at least temporary immunity from civil damages litigation in cases where the acts at issue occurred before he took office and involved no official conduct. The president's attorneys may have made the best case they could devise, but the case was never there.
The details of Paula Jones's accusations are well known and were not resolved by yesterday's decision. She won only the right to proceed in court to try to prove her case. The president, by the nature of his office, is still expected to be accorded respect and some flexibility in responding to the demands of a lawsuit. The justices clearly noted, for example, that the trial court should, though not required by the Constitution to do so, accommodate the president's schedule, take testimony at the White House and allow delays in exceptional circumstances. But they brushed aside claims that national security or separation of powers problems required postponement of the trial until 2001. It is true that after discovery has been completed and when the trial is about to begin, the president will have another opportunity to ask for a postponement. But his request carries no special weight because of his office and must be balanced against Ms. Jones's interest in proceeding to trial lest evidence be lost or witnesses die while there is delay.
What will happen now? One possibility of course is settlement, another that the two sides go to trial. A trial would likely be an embarrassment no matter how it turned out. But that's not a reason to deny a citizen normal access to the courts. That was part of the court's message, and we think the message is right.
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