By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would speed up review of Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr's demand to see notes of conversations between White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. and his lawyer.
The case was set for oral arguments on June 8 and a decision is likely by late June or early July, when the justices recess for the term.
The legal issue is whether the attorney-client privilege, which ensures confidentiality, ends when the client dies, opening the way for a prosecutor to obtain information about communication between the two. Foster committed suicide in July 1993, nine days after meeting with his lawyer and talking about firings at the White House travel office, which Starr is investigating.
Beyond Starr's probe, the case is significant in testing the durability of the long-standing attorney-client privilege. A decision will determine whether individuals can be assured that secrets they reveal to their lawyers will not be disclosed to prosecutors, family members or others after death.
A federal appeals court had ruled that the needs of a criminal investigation can override what is usually an absolute privilege between a lawyer and client. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said preserving that bond of secrecy in a criminal case interferes with efforts to get at the truth.
When the Supreme Court announced March 30 that it would hear the appeal of Foster's lawyer, James Hamilton, and his firm, Swidler & Berlin, it put the case on a schedule that would have resulted in oral arguments being held in late 1998 and a ruling likely next spring.
But Starr asked the justices to move it up so his work on the travel office firings would not be unduly stalled. He has been trying to get the notes, which relate to the controversial firings and Foster's worries about the episode, for more than two years. The legal issues in Swidler & Berlin v. United States, Starr told the court, "need resolution so that a pending grand jury investigation and the work of the independent counsel in a matter of substantial national interest can be completed in an expeditious manner."
Part of Starr's broad investigation of President Clinton and the first lady, which began with a probe into the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater, extends to whether any officials lied or committed other crimes during various government investigations into the firing of travel office workers.
In Starr's most high-profile effort, he is trying to determine whether Clinton lied under oath or encouraged others to lie during the Paula Jones case regarding any sexual relations he might have had with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. A federal trial judge recently threw out Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against the president, but Starr's probe of whether perjury or obstruction of justice occurred in relation to that case continues.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company