By Peter Baker
A federal judge threw out Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton yesterday, abruptly calling off an often unseemly four-year legal struggle that opened the president's private life to unprecedented public scrutiny and led to an ongoing independent counsel investigation.
In a ruling that shocked both sides, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright rejected all of Jones's claims stemming from her 1991 encounter with Clinton in a hotel suite. Even if Clinton did make a crude proposition, the judge concluded that it would not constitute sexual assault and that there was no proof Jones was emotionally afflicted or punished in the workplace for rebuffing him. "There are no genuine issues for trial in this case," she wrote.
The White House and its allies immediately rejoiced in what they saw as a momentous turning point, not only for the president's legal and political prospects but also for his chances of shaping a favorable historical legacy. The decision reached Clinton in Dakar, Senegal, and he beat an African drum in celebration. "The president is pleased to receive the vindication that he's been waiting a long time for," said an understated White House press secretary Michael McCurry.
The jubilation was tempered by recognition of the damage already wrought and the fact that the case is not completely over. Jones's lawyers immediately signaled that they will appeal the dismissal, meaning months of additional legal maneuvering.
And independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr said there would be "no effect" on his investigation stemming from the Jones case into whether Clinton or his friends tried to tamper with witnesses, including Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was caught on tape saying the president wanted her to lie to Jones's lawyers about having an affair. Yet some legal experts said Starr may have a more difficult time pursuing a charge that Clinton perjured himself in his own Jones deposition.
Wright's ruling stunned those involved in the case, most of whom were anticipating that the trial set to start in Little Rock May 27 would prove a grueling and combative ordeal. Clinton, who was nearing the end of an 11-day African journey, initially asked his attorney calling from Washington if it was an April Fools' joke. Ten minutes after hanging up, the president called back just to make sure. Appearing joyous, he was later spotted in his hotel room chewing a cigar and banging on a drum.
Jones, according to one of her lawyers, heard the news in Southern California on a cellular telephone call while driving, pulled over to the side of the road and cried.
"I'm shocked, shocked," David M. Pyke, another of the Dallas-based lawyers for Jones, said minutes after learning of the ruling. "I think we had great grounds to go forward and the case should have gone forward."
In her 39-page ruling, Wright never addressed whether Clinton actually dropped his pants and asked Jones for oral sex in a suite at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, while he was Arkansas governor and she was a low-level state clerk. Instead, she granted the president's motion for summary judgment by finding that, if true, such behavior would be "boorish and offensive" but had not done much damage to Jones.
In particular, the judge noted that Jones never filed a grievance, sought counseling or missed a day of work. Instead, Wright found that the evidence supported the Clinton team's defense that Jones received every merit raise she was due over the next two years and produced no proof that Clinton ever ordered any retribution against her.
"While the Court will certainly agree that [Jones's] allegations describe offensive conduct, the Court ... has found that the Governor's alleged conduct does not constitute sexual assault," Wright wrote. "Rather, the conduct as alleged by [Jones] describes a mere sexual proposition or encounter, albeit an odious one, that was relatively brief in duration, did not involve any coercion or threats of reprisal, and was abandoned as soon as [Jones] made clear that the advance was not welcome."
Wright also was unpersuaded by the hundreds of pages of documents submitted by the Jones team in recent weeks alleging a pattern of extramarital sexual encounters by Clinton, dismissing the significance of the issue in a single paragraph.
"Whether other women may have been subjected to workplace harassment, and whether such evidence has allegedly been suppressed, does not change the fact that [Jones] has failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury," the judge ruled.
Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's chief attorney, praised Wright for "her courage to make the right decision" in spite of the political fallout. "She is right on the law, she is right on the facts and the opinion speaks for itself," he said.
At the White House and in Clinton's traveling party in Africa, officials maintained a consciously subdued tone, in part out of concern for appearing to gloat and in part out of the realization of the great toll the Jones case has already taken on his presidency.
"The reactions here are more mixed and complicated than the official line," said one senior aide. "We're all sort of surprised at the emotion this is bringing out. But it's not jumping up and down, it's not popping champagne corks. It's ranging from vindication to almost sort of bitter anger why something this baseless occupied three years of our lives."
The Jones camp maintained that the decision does not absolve Clinton of the conduct she alleged. "It shows that challenging the most powerful man in the world is a very difficult thing," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which financed her case, adding that an appeal is "99 percent" certain.
"The White House is going to come out and say this is a vindication of Clinton, but this isn't a vindication of anybody," said T. Wesley Holmes, another Jones attorney. "This order assumes that every single word Paula Jones said is true. So there hasn't been a determination as to whether Bill Clinton is telling the truth or Paula Jones is telling the truth."
The Jones case led to the Lewinsky investigation after the 24-year-old former aide was subpoenaed to testify about whether she had a sexual relationship with the president. Lewinsky and Clinton both denied that they did in sworn testimony, but Starr has tape recordings of her describing an 18-month affair and efforts by the president to keep her quiet.
Starr issued a statement saying the dismissal would not sidetrack his investigation. "Judge Wright's ruling today has no effect on our authority and we will continue working to complete the investigation as expeditiously as possible," he said as his prosecutors met in Little Rock and Washington to assess the fallout from the Jones ruling.
The effect of the dismissal on the criminal probe could be more political than legal, according to a number of attorneys and scholars. Clinton supporters already had argued that Starr should not be seeking to prosecute perjured testimony arising from a civil case; they contended yesterday's ruling makes such a pursuit even more tenuous because the civil case has been dismissed.
Independent legal experts said the dismissal makes it more problematic and less appealing for Starr to pursue charges against the president related to any false statements he made in the Jones case.
The lawyer for Lewinsky said she "was buoyed" by the development and he expressed hope that it may mean legal relief for her. "Now that the Paula Jones case has disappeared, the relevance, the materiality and the importance of anything my client may have done or not done pales," said William H. Ginsburg. "The foundations of a zealous effort are undermined."
Regardless of where the Starr investigation it gave rise to goes from here, the Jones case has left a deep and at times devastating effect on many lives beyond the president's. In the course of the evidence gathering by Jones's lawyers, women who have known Clinton or worked for him were forced to testify under oath about whether they ever slept with him. Then, they saw their names made public against their will. Ultimately, three women other than Jones came forward in their depositions to assert sexual encounters with Clinton, while a number of others denied it. Clinton acknowledged only one indiscretion, a single sexual liaison with Gennifer Flowers.
Daniel Gecker, an attorney for one woman drawn into the case involuntarily, Kathleen E. Willey, said last night that it was "unfortunate" that Wright issued her ruling after his client was compelled to speak "and the parties saw fit to ... eliminate any privacy Ms. Willey had." The former White House aide went on "60 Minutes" to describe her story of an unwanted advance by Clinton only after her Jones testimony was made public.
Another woman who testified said she feared the president would see the ruling as a license to continue reckless behavior. "Clinton is like a kid who does something wrong and gets away with it," said Dolly Kyle Browning, a childhood friend who testified that she had an off-and-on affair with Clinton for years. "It makes him think he can do it again and he doesn't develop a sense of responsibility or an awareness that there are justifiable consequences to his actions."
The Jones case got started after several state troopers who served as Clinton's bodyguards in Arkansas told the American Spectator magazine in 1993 that he used them to procure women. One woman referred to in the article was identified only as "Paula." Jones came forward to say she was the woman in the article and disputed any consensual relationship. Instead, she said, Clinton lured her to the suite using state trooper Danny Ferguson, exposed his erect penis and asked her to "kiss it."
In May 1994, Jones filed her lawsuit, naming Ferguson as a defendant as well as Clinton, and over the last four years she ran through an extraordinary legal gantlet. Clinton argued that the case should not be heard until after he left office. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument in a unanimous decision last year that held that even the president is subject to civil lawsuits.
Along the way, there were angry charges and counter-charges. The president's defenders called the case "tabloid trash" and accused Jones of being a money-hungry pawn of conservatives.
Her own lawyers quit in frustration last fall after she refused to take a $700,000 tentative settlement proposal from Clinton because it did not include an apology.
Those lawyers filed an $800,000 lien against Jones and any proceeds she made from the case. Jones eventually signed a contract with a direct-mail fund-raising firm that launched a fund-raising effort for "litigation expenses," but $100,000 went to Jones personally and not her lawyers.
Clinton's life, in the meantime, was excavated for a series of sordid allegations. Just this week, a woman whose testimony was unsuccessfully sought by Jones's lawyers, former Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen, came forward to acknowledge she had a consensual one-night sexual liaison with Clinton in 1983, an assertion the president did not deny.
The most sensational charge came last weekend when the Jones lawyers filed papers that included an uncorroborated allegation that Clinton raped a woman 20 years ago even though the woman herself denied it. The Jones lawyers named the woman, despite a court order not to identify those who wanted their privacy protected. Several Clinton advisers speculated that the filing, left in a court's drop-box on a Saturday and made available to reporters before the judge saw it, may have been the final straw in Wright's decision.
In its final form, the lawsuit made three charges that Clinton deprived Jones of her civil rights by sexually harassing her, that he conspired with Ferguson to violate her rights and that he intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her. Because she waited so long to sue, Jones could not charge sexual harassment under the traditional Title VII code.
Wright ruled that Jones had to prove either quid pro quo harassment, meaning she had suffered "tangible job detriment" for refusing to have sex with Clinton, or that a hostile workplace was created as a result. But Jones never proved that her job duties or benefits were changed because of the incident, the judge concluded, rejecting her complaints about being transferred and not receiving flowers on Secretaries' Day. And the single hotel room encounter Jones described was not severe enough to constitute a hostile workplace, Wright found.
Without such a conclusion, she decided a conspiracy count could not stand either.
As for the emotional distress claim, which was based on state law, Wright pointed out that Jones continued to work for the state for another 19 months and continued to deliver items to the governor's office as part of her duties without asking to be relieved.
The judge seemed to scoff at a recent declaration from a sexual disorders specialist who said Jones suffered from post-traumatic stress and "sexual aversion," calling his opinions "vague and conclusory."
"In sum, [Jones's] allegations fall far short of the rigorous standards for establishing a claim of outrage under Arkansas law," Wright wrote.
The decision no doubt will subject Wright to intense legal and political second-guessing, with some noting that she already has been overturned once in the Jones case when the Supreme Court last year unanimously rejected her decision to delay trial until after the president left office. A former law school student of Clinton's, Wright was appointed to the bench by his predecessor in the White House, Republican George Bush.
But Wright, at least, is one Republican who will not be criticized as part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Rodham Clinton has said gave rise both to the Jones case and the Starr investigation. As the lawsuit dragged on largely because of his own maneuvering both the president and the first lady came to the conclusion that it was strictly political and, in the end, just a "stalking horse" for Starr.
"The flagship of the right-wing armada has just sunk," a Clinton friend who declined to be named exulted yesterday. "There are other boats in the water to be sure, but the flagship has just gone down in flames."
Staff writers Lorraine Adams and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.
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