Facing a Very Unpresidential Grilling
Paula Jones and her lawyers will question Clinton Saturday in a historic confrontation.
BOSTON — Legal experts use many words to describe the upcoming deposition of Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Congenial isn't one of them.
Saturday morning, a lawyer for Ms. Jones will stand nose-to-nose with Mr. Clinton in an attempt to prove the president of the United States is the type of man who would use his powerful position to facilitate extramarital relations with his employees.
The sharp questioning won't just be confined to the alleged encounter between Jones and then Governor Clinton in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room in 1991. Jones and her team of lawyers intend to investigate the full range of what they say is a pattern of such activity that began at the governor's mansion in Arkansas and may have continued in the White House.
Clinton and his lawyer deny any wrongdoing. But the stage is set for a historic confrontation that promises to introduce new levels of tawdriness to the presidency.
Although many Americans have already made up their minds about the veracity of Jones's allegations, even a verdict favorable to Clinton would carry political repercussions: The publicity of a trial would do little to ennoble the president.
At the same time, the case makes clear that anyone who aspires to be president in the future would be forced to carry any existing personal legal baggage into the White House.
"The deposition is going to be ugly, ugly, ugly," says Pamela Karlan, a professor of law at the University of Virginia. "It will be a lot of: 'Did you sleep with X?, did you sleep with Y?, did you sleep with Z?' "
Only in America could one of the most powerful leaders on earth face a no-holds-barred grilling by private lawyers who are determined to delve into intimate details of his sex life.
In addition to possible inquiries about the president's anatomy, questions will likely revolve around a subject matter usually confined to salacious gossip. But in this case many such questions appear to be relevant. And the president will be under oath and obliged to answer.
"This case is about what the governor did while governor with respect to other state employees. That is not the kind of thing we think of as protected by privacy," says Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at the University of Illinois.
With a May 27 trial date fast approaching in the Paula Jones case, the time has arrived for Clinton to face Jones and her lawyers. The meeting is set to take place behind closed doors in a Washington law office. It will be videotaped and memorialized word for word in a printed transcript that will likely remain under court seal.
Such depositions are a normal part of civil litigation. The procedure is aimed at helping Jones's lawyers uncover evidence supporting their case. But investigation is only part of the process, legal experts say.
Depositions help establish a record of a defendant's statements, comments made under oath that can later be compared to the defendant's sworn testimony at trial.
If there are significant deviations from the earlier statements, lawyers point them out to the jury to impeach the credibility of the witness.
Depositions are also viewed as an opportunity to put pressure on a defendant to settle the case should the defendant wish to prevent certain embarrassing details from being disclosed at trial.
"One of the things you try to do is show the other side that if [the defendant] has to take the stand at trial he is going to pay a heavy price," Ms. Karlan says.
Not surprisingly, settlement talks in the Jones case - dormant since last fall - revived this week on the eve of the deposition. Although the Jones suit seeks only $525,000 in damages, her lawyers insist they will not settle for less than $2 million and an apology from Clinton.
Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennett, says the entire case is an attempt by Jones and her supporters to embarrass the president while getting rich through book deals.
Lawyers for Jones counter that the price of settling the case has risen because Jones's legal fees have continued to rise, primarily because of the successful stalling tactics employed by the president and Mr. Bennett to delay any trial until after the 1996 presidential election.
Although the subject matter in his deposition will be extremely unpresidential, Clinton could emerge from the grilling in a stronger position, some legal experts say.
If the president is able to demonstrate that he will be an effective, believable witness at trial, Jones and her lawyers may decide to reduce their settlement price. In addition, a sitting president and former Arkansas governor would likely enjoy more than a benefit of the doubt from jurors in a Little Rock courtroom.
Impact of Jones's presence
The fact that Jones is expected to attend the deposition is not considered particularly important by legal experts, although it adds drama for media reports. She has a legal right to attend. But experts say her presence is unlikely to rattle a veteran politician and world leader like Clinton.
The one advantage her presence offers to her lawyers is that they may consult with her immediately about any new information, enabling them to ask pointed follow up questions to the president.
Although the trial judge in the case is not expected to attend the deposition, she will be much on the minds of attorneys for both sides, says William Eskridge Jr., a law professor at Georgetown University.
The judge serves as the ultimate referee in a deposition, and, if necessary, can be contacted for rulings by phone.
"Either side can go to the judge and ask for a protective order or for an order instructing the defendant to answer a question," Mr. Eskridge says.
Just how contentious the deposition will get depends in large part on the strategy and tactics employed by Jones's lawyers.
"If the purpose is to elicit information then the tone will be probing and nice," says Eskridge. "If the point is to bring to bear on the other party the emotional and other costs of going to trial then the tone can be expected to be more bullying, abrasive, and confrontational."