Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Against Clinton Delayed


President Clinton won a major victory Thursday in the sexual harassment suit filed against him by Paula Corbin Jones when a federal judge issued a procedural ruling that could delay the case until after the 1996 presidential election.

Although the substance of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan W. Wright in Little Rock, Ark., concerns technical matters--the order in which Clinton must file motions in the case--lawyers on both sides agreed that its impact will be large. In effect, Wright’s order grants Clinton the one thing that his attorneys have sought above all else--a delay.

The issue for Wright was whether Clinton should be required to respond to Jones’ allegations before the courts rule on his claim that he is immune from being sued while he is President. The judge ruled that he does not have to respond until the immunity issue is resolved.


Clinton’s immunity claim “may or may not succeed,” the judge wrote in a nine-page opinion. But the issue “raises significant and important constitutional issues” and “deserves threshold consideration, prior to the filing of any other motions or pleadings.”

The effect of that ruling, lawyers on both sides of the case agreed, will be to put off any substantive response by Clinton to Jones’ allegations for years.

“It’s going to delay this whole case for a lengthy period of time,” said Gil Davis, one of Jones’ attorneys. The delay could easily extend well into 1996 and possibly until after the elections that November, Davis said.

Another member of Jones’ defense team said, “I bet they’re popping champagne corks over there,” referring to the offices of Clinton’s attorney, Robert S. Bennett.

Bennett was somewhat more low key. “We’re obviously pleased with the decision and think it’s clearly the right one,” he said.

Politically, a delay in filing a response to the allegations is important for Clinton because, in any such response, his lawyers would have had to provide at least some detail about what may have happened between Clinton and Jones in a Little Rock hotel in May, 1991.


Clinton has made no direct comment--aides have said in the past that he does not remember any such encounter--and almost anything his lawyers said on the subject would be a potential source of political embarrassment to him. Jones claims that she went to Clinton’s hotel suite and that the then-governor exposed himself and asked her to perform a sexual act.

Although Wright offered no direct indication how she would rule on the immunity claim, the tone of her opinion did not bode well for Jones. “It must be recognized that the relief (Jones) seeks is of a purely personal nature, the delay of which will affect but a single individual who waited two days short of three years in which to file her lawsuit,” Wright wrote.

Quoting from an earlier Supreme Court decision on presidential immunity, she said the President’s claim to immunity from suits for civil damages is equally legitimate and may affect “not only the President and his office, but also the nation that the presidency was designed to serve.”

As a result of Wright’s ruling, lawyers now plan to spend several months preparing arguments for and against Clinton’s immunity claim. Wright gave Bennett until Aug. 10 to file his formal motion on immunity. Davis and his partner, Joseph Cammarata, are then likely to ask for substantial time to prepare a response.

Lawyers familiar with the case said they expect that Wright will not hear a formal oral argument on the motion before late fall and that a decision probably will not come before early next year.

If Wright sides with Clinton, Jones’ case would be dismissed, although she would be allowed to refile it once Clinton is out of office. Clinton’s legal team believes that a parallel case against Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson also would be set aside until Clinton could be available as a witness. Davis said he would argue against that, although he conceded that the judge could well rule against him.


Whichever side loses the immunity argument almost certainly will appeal, first to the federal appeals court and then to the Supreme Court--a process that routinely can take two years or more.

If Clinton eventually loses the immunity argument, he could then file motions to dismiss Jones’ claims on other legal grounds. Independent experts have said that, whether or not Jones’ allegations are true, her case has substantial legal weaknesses, in part because she waited so long to file it.

Resolution of those legal issues could add still further delay.