Harassment Suit Against Clinton May Break Legal Ground

THOMAS JEFFERSON was sued once, after he left the White House, for sending US marshals to seize a citizen's land. Jefferson won.

Richard Nixon was sued for damages by a whistle-blowing federal employee the former president had ordered fired. Nixon won.

President Clinton was served with a civil complaint on Monday by a woman accusing him of sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas. His attorney, Robert Bennett, says this is the first time a president has been sued for an action alleged to have occurred before taking office.

So the suit lodged by former Arkansas state clerical worker Paula Corbin Jones against former Governor Clinton is treading new legal ground. Mr. Clinton's attorney has 20 days to answer the complaint, and he is expected to file a motion for dismissal of the charges.

Win or lose, Clinton may soon face the distraction of the plaintiff's lawyers probing widely for evidence in Clinton's personal life, dredging up further claims of sexual misbehavior, and shifting attention still further from Clinton's policy agenda, even if the allegations are false.

Leading experts on the Constitution's separation of powers between branches of government - which includes the relations between the president and the courts - can think of few times in United States history when a president has been sued personally and no instances of a president sued for alleged actions outside of his official duties.

Clinton's legal team might argue that the chief executive is immune from civil liability, since lawsuits could keep him from his presidential duties and tie the government in knots.

This was the argument Nixon's attorneys used successfully in the whistle-blower case; the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that a president has absolute immunity from lawsuits over actions taken ``within the outer perimeter of his official responsibilities.''

THE trouble with this argument for Clinton is that Ms. Jones's allegations are of acts in 1991 - well before he assumed the presidency, hence well beyond any official responsibilities.

The government has an interest in protecting a president's duties from interruption regardless of the cause of legal action; but the fact that the Supreme Court drew a line at the ``outer perimeter'' of official duties implies that the justices did not mean to render a president immune for his nonpresidential actions.

This is the view of Harold Bruff, author of a legal text on the separation of powers and a leading authority on the subject who is on the faculty of George Washington University.

Clinton attorney Bennett is ``in real trouble on that one,'' he says.

University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky agrees: ``I think it really is a stretch.''

Mr. Bennett may file for dismissal on other grounds as well, based on what he claims are procedural defects in Jones's case, and he may appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. If he does not win dismissal, the suit proceeds to the discovery phase, where the plaintiff may have broad latitude to gather evidence on anything that might be relevant, including allegations of similar behavior by Clinton in other instances.

``That's the thing I would be most troubled by'' as a defendant, says Theodore Olson, a Washington lawyer and former assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration.

Although the judge could put a protective order on the discovery process, meaning that the depositions are withheld from public scrutiny, any evidence is likely to find its way into the news media in such an intensely scrutinized case, Mr. Olson says.

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