The ruling by a federal appeals court panel that President Clinton is not immune while in office from civil suits based on earlier alleged misdeeds is, we think, wrong and should be overturned by a higher court.
To say this is not pass judgment on the merit of the claim by Paula Jones that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas in 1991, sexually harassed her in a Little Rock hotel room. Our concern instead is with insulating the president--any president--from the prospect of suits based on alleged wrongdoing before assuming the presidency. Jones has a right to her day in court. But the presidency, for the sake of the nation and not just the president, must also be protected against time-consuming and possibly politically motivated civil suits. Jones waited three years before filing her suit in May 1994. Justice would not be ill-served if it is delayed until Clinton leaves office.
Jones alleges that while a state employee she was invited to Clinton's hotel room, where he made a crude sexual advance. Clinton denies this. In a ruling 13 months ago, a federal judge held that Jones' suit could be delayed until Clinton is no longer president, but also said that interviews of witnesses, including Clinton, could take place as soon as possible. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that a president is immune from all civil suits arising from official activities while in office. But the issue of suits stemming from prepresidential private behavior breaks new ground.
The appeals court panel's majority held that "the president . . . is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society" and "is not immune from civil suits for his unofficial acts." With this there can be no quarrel. But the dissenting opinion in the 2-1 ruling, citing "the well-known travail of litigation and its effect on the ability of the president to perform his duties," argued that such civil suits should be deferred until a president leaves office. This, we think, is the central point. A president must be spared from a plague of costly, enervating litigation while in office. Without prejudice to any plaintiff's rights, the presidency must be protected from the threat of unremitting legal harassment.