Lawsuit Against Clinton Can Proceed, Court SaysBy Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28 1997; Page A01
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Paula Corbin Jones can move forward with her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. The court's forceful decision rejected Clinton's argument that sitting presidents should have legal immunity from allegations involving their personal conduct.
The ruling not only has historic consequences for the institution of the presidency, it also could have a bruising political effect on Clinton: He now can be required to answer potentially embarrassing questions about Jones's claim that he propositioned her and exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room while he was governor of Arkansas and she was a low-level state employee. From the start, Clinton has denied any wrongdoing.
Although the ruling means that the lawsuit against Clinton must proceed, it left room for legal maneuvers that could continue to delay the case. Indeed, the court invited the trial judge who would eventually hear the dispute to consider any specific showing by Clinton of the potential harm that may occur if he has to tend to a trial.
Yesterday's ruling nonetheless eliminated what Clinton's lawyers thought would be their best gambit the argument that the nation's chief executive has a job so demanding that he should be protected from civil lawsuits until leaving office. To make their case, they relied chiefly on an earlier court decision that said presidents are immune from lawsuits for their official actions, arguing that therefore a president should have temporary immunity from lawsuits involving personal conduct as well.
The Supreme Court yesterday spurned Clinton's contention that he should not have to defend himself against Jones until 2001, finding that nothing in the Constitution allows a sitting president to postpone a private civil damages lawsuit. The court said it is unlikely the case would burden Clinton's time. And without commenting on the merits of Jones's case or whether Clinton is liable, the court said Jones is entitled to her day in court.
"Like every other citizen . . . [Jones] has a right to an orderly disposition of her claims," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in an opinion that, while voicing respect for the office of the president, nonetheless reduced Clinton to an ordinary citizen in the eyes of the law. As Stevens read a portion of his opinion in the hushed courtroom, referring flatly to "William Jefferson Clinton" and reciting without emotion the events alleged to have occurred on May 8, 1991, at the Excelsior Hotel, he could have been talking about any litigant in America.
But the moment was not without drama. The unanimity of the decision was a surprise, given that the justices seemed torn on the issue during oral arguments on the case last January, with some appearing quite sympathetic to Clinton. Also unpredictable was that Stevens, among the most liberal of the justices, would write the firm opinion against the president and be joined in the decision by the two Clinton appointees on the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. (Breyer wrote a separate statement cautioning against judicial interference with the president.)
At bottom, the court rejected Clinton's two key arguments, first that constitutional immunity for a president's official actions extends to his unofficial conduct, and second that the separation of powers doctrine, which ensures that none of the three branches of government infringes on another, forbids a trial judge to force a sitting president to defend himself in a lawsuit.
"[W]e have never suggested that the president, or any other official, has an immunity that extends beyond the scope of any action taken in an official capacity," it said.
The court, however, said the trial judge should consider specific arguments by the president about why he might need to occasionally postpone his part in the legal proceedings. "The high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive, though not justifying a rule of categorical immunity, is a matter that should inform the conduct of the entire proceeding, including the timing and scope of discovery," the court said, referring to the pretrial procedure during which parties gather interviews and other information to make their case.
That means that while Clinton cannot get the kind of unconditional years-long delay he sought, he still might be able to win short but continual postponements in the proceedings.
The high court declined to rule on whether a judge may force the president to physically appear in court at a specific time: "We assume that the testimony of the president, both for discovery and for use at trial, may be taken at the White House at a time that will accommodate his busy schedule," the justices said.
While yesterday's decision may put pressure on Clinton to settle the case with Jones, an outcome her attorneys indicated they would be open to, the president's lawyer balked at the suggestion.
"The likelihood of a settlement is most unlikely because the president did nothing wrong," Clinton's personal lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, said in an interview with CNN. Bennett also said he is confident the case will be resolved in the president's favor, and suggested he will file additional motions challenging Jones's contentions and asking that the case be thrown out on other legal grounds.
David Strauss, a University of Chicago law professor who with Bennett is defending Clinton in the case, said in an interview that the president may still argue that the lawsuit cannot proceed immediately. A trial would have "to be paced in a way that would accommodate the important duties of the president," Strauss said. "I can easily envision the president being preoccupied for long periods of time, months."
Clinton was in Paris yesterday meeting with NATO allies and neither he nor his spokesman had a comment on the ruling.
Jones said in a statement that she was happy with the court decision and "pleased that I will have my day in court." Her lawyer, Gilbert K. Davis, said the ruling in Clinton v. Jones means "every public official remains accountable for their personal private conduct, including the president of the United States."
Jones, who is seeking $700,000 in damages, filed her lawsuit in May 1994 in U.S. District Court in Arkansas, alleging that Clinton engaged in sexual harassment and assault, conspired with a state trooper to entice her into a sexual liaison, and defamed her character in subsequent remarks to the news media. A district judge ruled that Clinton would not have to defend himself while in office but said that lawyers on both sides could begin interviewing witnesses as part of the legal discovery process.
Both sides appealed, and last year the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Jones, declaring that "the president, like all other government officials, is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company