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Clinton Drops Active-Duty Lawsuit Protection Claim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Confronted with a political furor, the White House said Tuesday that President Clinton will not claim that his status as commander in chief of the armed forces entitles him to stave off a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Robert S. Bennett, the president’s lawyer, said that a new brief he was filing at the Supreme Court will clarify that his recent argument in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case was not based on the 1940 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act. That act frees active-duty service personnel from responding immediately to damage suits against them.

House Republicans and a coalition of Vietnam War veterans had harshly criticized Clinton last week after his initial legal brief seemed to claim that his active-duty military status entitles him to put off Jones’ lawsuit. They called it “a slap in the face to the millions of men and women” in the armed forces.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton did not read the original brief before it was filed. Clinton had only “a general discussion” of the first brief but left specific references to his attorneys, McCurry told reporters.

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“There’s been a deliberate and calculated effort by the president’s political opponents to misconstrue the brief,” he said. The president did not ask Bennett to file a new brief, McCurry said.

Bennett said that, to support his claim that a president cannot be forced to answer to a civil suit while he is in office, the new filing would clarify that Clinton was relying on the Constitution only--not the military relief act. The separation of powers doctrine in the Constitution protects the chief executive from having to answer to such a suit in the judicial branch, according to the brief.

Bennett said that mention of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Act in the original brief was only by way of comparison. The brief said that Clinton “seeks relief similar to that which he may be entitled to as commander in chief of the armed forces and which is routinely available to service members under his command.”

Last week 160 GOP House members wrote Clinton to demand that he retract “the ignoble suggestion” that he is a member of the armed forces.

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Veterans leaders, in view of Clinton’s avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War, also called the legal reference to military relief an outrage. “We were just blown away with that,” said J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition.

Bennett, appearing Tuesday on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America,” labeled the criticism “a grotesque and a disgraceful distortion” of the truth. He said later in an interview that “the basis of our filing was not the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act. We only mentioned that as a similar provision in the law.”

Bennett said that because he had to file another brief in the case to reply to one filed on behalf of Jones’ lawyers, “we just used the occasion to clarify in a footnote what has been greatly distorted.”

Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour was not mollified.

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“Let me get this straight,” Barbour said. “Clinton never relied on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act to postpone the sexual harassment suit and to prove it he is rewriting the brief to take out the part that he never relied on in the first place?

“That’s vintage Bill Clinton.”

Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, alleges in her lawsuit that Clinton crudely propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel suite in 1991 when he was governor. Clinton has denied the incident.


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