Court Weighs Presidential Lawsuits That Get Personal

During the past four years President Clinton has been named a defendant in 88 lawsuits filed in federal court in Washington, according to court records. Unlike the Paula Jones suit being heard by the Supreme Court today, the 88 suits targeted the president for his official actions or his status as head of the executive branch of government.

Many were filed by prison inmates complaining of violations of their constitutional rights. One asked a federal judge to declare the embargo on Cuba unconstitutional. Another sought to overturn random urine testing at the Old Executive Office Building.

Court records show that judges dismissed 46 of the 88 suits on the same day the cases were opened, and threw out 21 others within two weeks of being filed. Of the remaining suits, five are still active today.

Statistics illustrate two points likely to be made before the Supreme Court in the Paula Jones case. First, the presidency is a magnet for lawsuits. Second, most federal judges have experience recognizing and quickly disposing of frivolous suits.

But will the justices agree that the prospect of future lawsuits seeking personal damages against presidents poses a significant danger to the nation? Or will they decide that presidents face a relatively small risk of personal-oriented litigation?

At issue is whether Mr. Clinton should enjoy a limited form of immunity from lawsuits filed against him personally. The president's lawyers want the court to postpone the Paula Jones suit until after Clinton leaves office.

The Supreme Court in a 1982 case recognized that presidents enjoy absolute immunity from lawsuits seeking damages as a result of a president's official acts. Some analysts say the same argument supports limited immunity from personal suits.

"A president could be harassed to death with lawsuits, many of which could be frivolous," says George Edwards of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "It could have serious consequences for presidents in this litigious society that we have, where people sue for everything."

In his brief to the high court, the president's lawyer, Robert Bennett, says that in an era of big book and movie contracts, people are undeterred by the cost of filing a lawsuit. He says opposition parties or average citizens "can attain instant celebrity status or political impact simply by including allegations against such figures in a complaint filed in court."

Others say federal judges are able to make the distinctions. "Trial courts are perfectly capable of dismissing frivolous lawsuits," says Stephen Presser, a law professor at Northwestern University.

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