In Lawsuit Against Clinton, Both Sides Begin Maneuvering
By Joan Biskupic
One day after the Supreme Court ruled that Paula Corbin Jones can push forward her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, lawyers for both sides began maneuvering in ways that, if successful, could stop the case from ever going to trial.
Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's personal lawyer, indicated he would try to get Jones's allegations dismissed, while Jones's attorney, Gilbert K. Davis, signaled that his client was open to an out-of-court settlement.
Appearing on television news programs and talk shows, both sides also appeared intent on winning over public opinion in a case that has captured national attention ever since Jones filed her complaint three years ago. Because the case is so politically sensitive, gaining public support could strengthen the bargaining position of either side in the event of a settlement.
In her suit, Jones alleges that Clinton exposed himself to her and sought sexual favors in a Little Rock hotel room when he was Arkansas governor and she was a state worker. She is seeking $700,000 in damages.
Bennett vigorously defended his client and insisted, as he has all along, that Jones's alleged 1991 encounter with Clinton never took place.
"The president and I feel that some very nasty and malicious and false allegations have been made against him, and we look forward to our day in court . . . to show that they are malicious and baseless and primarily politically inspired," Bennett said on CNN's "Larry King Live" Tuesday night. Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Clinton has no constitutional right to avoid a civil lawsuit while he is in office.
Bennett, however, has acknowledged he was considering filing motions to get the case dismissed when it returns in upcoming weeks to U.S. District Court in Arkansas where Jones filed her complaint.
Clinton, who has been in Europe since the Supreme Court ruling, told reporters yesterday: "I have nothing really to add to what [Bennett] said. I think I should continue to let him speak for me."
Pressed on whether he would consider settling the suit, Clinton again referred to Bennett. "I want to do my job," he said, "and his job is to deal with that."
While Clinton was circumspect about a possible settlement, Jones's lawyers made clear yesterday that was an option they would gladly entertain. But they emphasized that Jones is seeking, Davis said, "some kind of admission . . . and something that could be interpreted as an apology." He said "a pretty good start" would be for Clinton to say he was in the hotel room with Jones and that he "regrets what happened."
As in any civil case, the Jones-Clinton dispute is apt to follow a predictable procedural path. When the case returns to Arkansas, Clinton will have 20 days to answer Jones's complaint and to make any motions aimed at dismissal.
Although Bennett has not been specific about his legal strategy for doing that, he might contend that Jones failed to make a proper legal claim. Jones filed her case under federal civil rights law, alleging that Clinton was using the power of his office when he propositioned her in 1991. Clinton's lawyers may argue that, even assuming it is true that Clinton sought sexual favors from Jones, she has failed to state a proper legal claim because he was not acting in his official capacity, and therefore the incident is not covered by the civil rights law.
Because Jones waited so long to file her complaint, the civil rights law was her best option; she had missed the deadline for bringing a sexual harassment complaint under the federal statute specifically prohibiting sex discrimination and harassment on the job.
If Clinton fails to get a dismissal, legal strategists say, he could then attempt to stall the case by arguing to the trial judge, Susan Webber Wright, that he needs temporary postponements in the proceedings because of the press of national business. Using this tactic, he may try to delay the discovery process, during which both sides conduct interviews and gather evidence.
While the high court said Wright was wrong to earlier accept Clinton's broad argument that his job was so demanding that he could not answer the civil complaint, the justices said she may consider specific arguments on why he might be too busy to participate in the case at any given point. If the case were to proceed on the usual track, a trial would be held in the next 10 to 12 months, lawyers say.
Jones's attorneys have suggested that, even before a big public trial, the discovery process could be quite embarrassing for Clinton. Joseph Cammarata, one of Jones's lawyers, said yesterday that they will seek records and interviews from Arkansas troopers as well as records from the Excelsior Hotel, where the incident is alleged to have occurred.
To stop discovery, Clinton would need to convince the judge with concrete specifics that the process would be disruptive to his duties as president.
Still, trying to delay the case could prove a risky political strategy. A protracted effort to stall could convey the impression of a president unwilling to face his responsibility. Perhaps worse for Clinton, fighting the charges would mean keeping them alive as the White House is trying to free itself from multi-scandal distraction.
"The question now for the president's lawyers is: To what extend is delay their goal?" said University of Virginia law professor Pamela S. Karlan, who was among professors siding with Clinton in his immunity claim. "If delay is their goal, there are a lot of ways to accomplish it. But politically, they may not want to do that."
Jones, too, faces problems of reputation. Her attorneys have said she filed her lawsuit because she wanted to clear her name and reputation after a magazine article mentioned the alleged encounter.
But filing a sexual harassment lawsuit often causes the opposite result, because defense attorneys are typically allowed to use depositions to expose all aspects of alleged victims' lives in hopes of minimizing the financial claims.
Said Phillip Kay, an attorney who has handled dozens of sexual harassment cases, "I'd say she's going to get dragged through a briar patch, pulled through the mud and shoved under a boat and raked over a bed of coral."
Staff writers John F. Harris in The Hague and Kevin Merida, Susan Schmidt and Kirstin Downey Grimsley in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company