The White House, hoping to defuse a sex-harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, has asked for a Justice Department opinion on whether a sitting President can be sued for acts that allegedly took place before he was elected.
The issue goes to the heart of Clinton's defense against charges by Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who filed a complaint May 6.
The President's attorneys, led by Robert S. Bennett, have signaled that they will argue as their first line of defense that allowing such suits would open the doors to legal maneuvering that could tie up the chief executive so seriously as to prevent him carrying out his job.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that a President cannot be sued for official acts that took place during his tenure. But the courts have never addressed the issue of lawsuits filed against a sitting President involving actions allegedly occurring before he took office.
Jones' suit apparently marks the first time that a sitting President has been sued over something that took place before his presidency began. But many lawyers say they believe that, given the litigious habits of Americans, it will not be the last.
Jones claims in the suit that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance at a Little Rock, Ark., hotel on May 8, 1991, while he was governor of Arkansas. She seeks $700,000 in damages.
If the defense plea is unsuccessful, the plaintiffs could embark on a lengthy discovery process that could bring out a wide range of witnesses whose testimony, even if legally dubious, could be politically damaging.
The request to the Justice Department means that the agency's lawyers essentially will be doing legal research for the President, at no cost to him. But Administration officials defended the request, saying that the public expense is justified because the opinion could benefit future presidents as well.
They said lawyers in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel would research only the immunity question and not consider the facts of the Jones complaint.
"This is done in connection with the institutional role of the President and the needs and the history of the office," said Carl Stern, the chief Justice Department spokesman. "The White House did not ask the Justice Department to do personal lawyering for Bill Clinton."
Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said the expense is appropriate. "He is the President of the United States," she said. "Everything that happens to him affects his capacity as President of United States, regardless."
The White House's request was made several days ago. White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler asked Walter Dellinger, who heads the Office of Legal Counsel, for the legal research.
If the courts bar such a complaint now, Jones will still have the option of filing her suit after Clinton leaves office.