Court Rulings Against Clinton Squeeze Presidential Powers

Secret Service ruling is one of many that have reined in White House privileges.

The Clinton administration - more often than any other in modern history - has looked to the Supreme Court to settle disputes over the powers and privileges of the presidency.

And with few exceptions, it has been disappointed with the high court's decisions, which are defining the presidency in much more restrictive terms than the White House would like.

The result, say experts, is less political maneuvering room for Mr. Clinton - and less freedom to discuss confidential matters. In practice, the court's decisions mean a shrinking of the president's inner circle of confidants to "his spouse and people covered by existing clear privileges," says Mark Tushnet, a Georgetown University law professor.

The latest setback for the White House came Friday, when the president's Secret Service agents were forced to appear before special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's grand jury for the Monica Lewinsky case. This, after Chief Justice William Rehnquist refused an administration request to temporarily block the agents' testimony. The Justice Department had argued the agents enjoy a special privilege that exempts them from testifying.

When Friday's development is added to other Supreme Court actions - such as last year's decision to let the Paula Jones suit against Clinton proceed and this summer's striking down of presidential line-item veto authority - the result is a buildup of "limits on the presidency," says political scientist James Thurber of American University here.

While the high court played a key role in the Watergate scandals surrounding the Nixon presidency, scholars say this administration has turned to the tribunal with unusual frequency.

One reason is that Clinton is under more attack, politically and legally. "In the modern era, political controversy of all sorts has become even more legalized," says Mr. Tushnet.

While delaying tactics by the Clinton administration played a role in so many cases ending up before the high court, scholars say serious issues are involved.

Presidential safety?

The Justice Department, on behalf of the Secret Service, argues that the issue in its case is presidential safety. If agents testify, the reasoning goes, it will break the confidentiality between agents and the president. That breach could cause a president to keep agents at arms' length, endangering his life.

But every step along the judicial road has brought rejection for the administration in this case. Chief Justice Rehnquist said the Justice Department had not shown that agents' testimony would cause "irreparable harm" to the president. He added that while the court might still review the case, he didn't see anything so far that would cause it to rule in the administration's favor.

Given this, the more likely venue for the administration to pursue its cause is in Congress, where there is already some interest in granting the Secret Service greater privileges.

Attorney-client privilege

In tenor, Friday's decision on the Secret Service echoed an earlier ruling by a federal judge that Bruce Lindsey, a legal adviser to the president, must also appear before the Starr grand jury.

The Lindsey ruling, though, represented a partial victory for the president: The judge accepted the notion that the confidentiality of attorney-client privilege extends to the president and government-paid attorneys. The judge also ruled that the first lady is protected by executive privilege.

But, the judge said, attorney-client privilege must be weighed against the prosecutor's needs for information, and, in this case, those needs were greater than the president's. The White House says attorney-client privilege is absolute and is appealing. A ruling is expected this month, which could yet go to the high court.

Still, more important in terms of presidential power is the court's jettisoning of the line-item veto. "It was a very powerful tool," says Thurber.

One area where analysts agree is that the court underestimated the consequences of allowing a civil suit - the Paula Jones case - to proceed against a sitting president. The justices said a civil suit would not be a distraction to the president.

Many experts now say it has been. "Obviously, the president isn't above the law," says Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University. "But what's generally lacking [from the court] is a deference to the president."

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