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Paula Jones Suit Against Clinton Can Go Forward

Supreme Court ruling means the president can't be shielded while in office, but case may yet be delayed.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 1997



WASHINGTON

The US Supreme Court ruling on the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit represents a mixed verdict for President Clinton.

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By ruling unanimously that the office of president does not have special immunity from civil suits, the justices closed off the best possible scenario for Mr. Clinton, who sought to halt the case until his term ends in 2001.

But the court, in a key part of the ruling, also said the federal district judge who is hearing the case has discretion to delay the trial - something that likely has White House lawyers breathing easier. Legal experts say it will not be difficult to stall the civil trial until well after Clinton leaves office.

Reaction to the case is mixed. "We are not going to see Paula Jones sitting in court testifying against the president any time soon," says Mark Tushnet of Georgetown University Law School. "The president can be comfortable. It is going to drag on now, which is all the White House cared about."

"This is a big loss for the president," counters Thomas Baker, a law professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "In the balance of the president's exaggerated claims of presidential immunity and Paula Jones's right to litigation, the justices have found her right to a day in court was more important."

In its ruling May 27, the court said the US Constitution does not shield a president from having to face lawsuits over acts unrelated to his official duties, either before or after the individual is elected. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, noted that the "separation of powers doctrine does not require federal courts to stay all private actions against the president until he leaves office."

Yet the justices not only left the door open for the district court judge to decide the timing of the case, they also refused to "confront the question of whether a court may compel the attendance of the President at any specific time or place," as Mr. Stevens put it in a clear statement giving the district judge broad discretion.

"It's very impressive that this court spoke with one voice, and the voice was Justice Stevens's, who is considered one of the most liberal ... members of the court," says James Simon, law professor at New York Law School.

Paula Jones, a former Arkansas employee while Clinton was governor, filed a sexual-harassment suit in May 1994, after an unnamed Arkansas state trooper was quoted in the American Spectator. The trooper said a meeting took place between Clinton and a "Paula" in 1991. Ms. Jones filed the suit two days before the three-year statute of limitations in civil suits expired.

President Clinton has consistently denied Jones's charges.

In 1994, an Arkansas district judge granted limited immunity to the president. But the US Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the president was not a "monarch" and that the case should go forward. Clinton appealed to the Supreme Court last June.

Given the high court ruling, White House lawyers are likely delighted the case returns to District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who has previously shown leniency to the president.

"She is known to be personally familiar with the Clintons," says Peter Shane, dean of the University of Pittsburgh Law School. But "she has a reputation of being a good trial judge."

Yet even if Judge Wright decides to move with some alacrity, the high court ruling gives Clinton lawyers ways to delay an immediate trial. They can delay the discovery process, in which witnesses are questioned, by objecting to scheduling dates. They can use a variety of motions in an effort to get rulings on, for example, which troopers can testify.

Moreover, one issue that has largely been ignored is whether Jones has a legal claim. It's an open question whether she meets the criteria for filing a sexual-harassment charge under federal civil rights law.