High Court Rules Sex Suit Against Clinton Can Go On
Clearing the way for a politically embarrassing case to go forward, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Bill Clinton is not shielded from answering questions under oath or standing trial on sexual-harassment charges just because he is president of the United States.
In a surprisingly strong, unanimous decision, the justices rejected Clinton’s claim that his high office with its unique burdens warrants giving him a “temporary immunity” from answering to civil lawsuits until he leaves the White House.
“The unofficial conduct of the individual who happens to be the president” is not a matter of constitutional concern, the high court said.
While Clinton’s powers as chief executive cannot be infringed, the $700,000 damage suit filed in Arkansas by Paula Corbin Jones, a former state employee, concerns “alleged misconduct [that] was unrelated to any of his official duties,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens.
“Whatever the outcome of this case, there is no possibility that the decision will curtail the scope of the official powers of the executive branch,” he added.
The court also discounted Clinton’s claim that the case will take up much of his time.
“We assume that the testimony of the president, both for discovery and for use at trial, may be taken at the White House at a time that will accommodate his busy schedule,” Stevens said. “If a trial is held, there would be no necessity for the president to attend in person, though he could elect to do so.”
Whether time-consuming or not, the case could prove politically damaging and personally embarrassing for a president who already has been hampered by scandalous allegations.
In Paris on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters that “the president continued to conduct the nation’s business today.” White House officials had not analyzed the opinion and would have no comment on the court’s ruling, he said. Clinton was in Paris to sign an accord between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
In her complaint, Jones said that she was crudely propositioned by then-Gov. Clinton in a Little Rock hotel room on May 8, 1991. A low-level state employee, Jones was working at the registration desk of a state-sponsored conference when, she has said, state trooper Danny Ferguson escorted her to a private room on the upper floors of the hotel.
She said that Clinton kissed her and dropped his pants. Flustered, Jones said that she quickly left the room and told only a few friends what had happened.
She said that she decided to sue nearly three years later when American Spectator, a conservative magazine, mentioned a woman named “Paula” as having succumbed to Clinton’s advances.
Later, she said, she was defamed as a liar by White House aides.
By rejecting Clinton’s immunity claim, the court opened the door for Jones’ lawyers to take sworn depositions from those with tales to tell of Clinton’s past associations with women in Arkansas. Jones’ lawyers believe that other state troopers who traveled with Clinton could testify that they witnessed untoward behavior by the governor.
Until now, the lawyers for Jones have been blocked from taking such statements. Once taken, those depositions would likely become public.
But Tuesday’s decision does not guarantee that depositions will be taken or that the case itself will eventually go to trial.
First, Clinton’s private lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, is likely to seek to win dismissal of the lawsuit on other grounds. He has asserted that Jones was not a victim of illegal sexual harassment by a state official because she was not punished for refusing the governor’s alleged advances.
If U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock agrees, she could simply dismiss the suit. However, if the judge disagrees with that argument, the case would go forward, even while Clinton’s lawyers appeal to higher courts. Wright said in a statement later Tuesday that she expects Clinton to respond to Jones’ suit within the next two months. Soon afterward, the judge said, she will file a scheduling order setting a trial date.
Second, Clinton also could choose to settle the lawsuit.
Unlike the Whitewater criminal case, Jones and her lawyers are seeking money damages to compensate for an alleged wrong.
Jones always has maintained that she is more interested in her reputation than in money. In the days before her lawsuit was filed three years ago, her lawyers and Clinton’s discussed a possible settlement. The two sides split, however, on whether Clinton would admit wrongdoing in addition to offering an apology.
After the decision was announced, Joseph Cammarata, an attorney for Jones, said that “there is no settlement proposal on the table.” But in an interview on MSNBC television Tuesday night, he said that Jones might be satisfied with a statement from the president in which Clinton says that “he remembers her, that she was in that room, that she did nothing wrong and that she is a good person.”
In a statement released by her lawyers, Jones said that she was happy with the Supreme Court ruling. “I’m quite pleased that I will have my day in court,” she said.
Jones did not emerge from her beachfront condominium in Long Beach on Tuesday, but she was visited by Susan Carpenter McMillan, spokeswoman for the Women’s Coalition, an advocacy group.
McMillan said afterward: “She’s happy. She’s thrilled. . . . Her life after today is never going to be the same. Clinton should’ve known from her initial reaction [that] he was messing with the wrong woman.”
Bennett issued a short statement after the decision, saying “we are confident that the case ultimately will be resolved in the president’s favor.” Later in an interview with Cable News Network, he said that a settlement is unlikely “because the president did nothing wrong.”
The Clintons have set up a legal defense fund to help them pay for high-priced private lawyers, including Bennett. Jones has been represented by a pair of Fairfax, Va., lawyers who say that they have received some contributions but are working on a contingency basis.
Just two weeks ago, Clinton filed a financial disclosure form showing that his liabilities far exceed his assets, mostly because of unpaid legal bills stemming from the Whitewater investigation. He reportedly owes the Williams & Connelly firm between $1 million and $5 million for its work on his behalf.
However, Clinton’s fees in the Jones case, including Bennett’s $475 hourly fee, are being paid by two insurance companies in a controversial arrangement. State Farm and the Chubb Corp., which sold liability policies to Clinton, agreed to pay all his litigation costs in the Jones case, according to a complaint filed by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
The group contends that the payout, which already has topped a reported $1.2 million, amounts to preferential treatment because the coverage usually applies only to accidental injuries, not to deliberate acts, such as sexual harassment.
Bennett’s strategy from the start was to delay the case until after the 1996 election.
He succeeded by appealing two earlier losses on the immunity issue. But the Supreme Court’s powerful rejection of Clinton’s claims may make it harder to persuade the trial judge to delay the case much longer. It may also make it harder to arrange a settlement.
The justices concluded by strongly suggesting that fairness requires Jones’ case to be heard.
“Like every other citizen who properly invokes that jurisdiction [of the federal courts], respondent [Jones] has a right to an orderly disposition of her claims,” Stevens said in the final paragraph of his 28-page opinion.
The national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the court for announcing “the correct result. We fought a revolution to establish the principle that the president is not above the law,” said the ACLU’s Steven R. Shapiro.
From the high court’s viewpoint, Tuesday’s ruling is consistent with its usual approach to cases seeking “immunity” from lawsuits.
Historically, the justices have been stingy about granting a broad legal immunity because the rule often seems unfair in individual instances. For example, the notion of “diplomatic immunity” is widely denounced whenever a foreign embassy employee causes an auto accident.
In the past, the justices have limited official immunities to situations where they are needed to “enable such officials to perform their designated functions,” Stevens noted. For example, a prosecutor is immune for what she says in court but can be sued for advising the police to conduct an illegal search. A judge is immune for his rulings from the bench but not for claims that he discriminated against a female employee.
In 1982, the court, on a 5-4 vote, said that presidents are immune from being sued over their “official acts.”
“The reasoning [of these past cases] provides no support for an immunity for unofficial conduct,” Stevens said in his opinion in the case (Clinton vs. Jones, 95-1853).
Only three previous presidents--Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy--have been named as defendants in civil suits, the court noted. All were quickly dismissed. Kennedy’s arose from an auto accident in Los Angeles during the 1960 Democratic National Convention there.
In the future, it is unlikely that there will be many more, the court said. Judges are empowered to quickly dismiss “harassing and frivolous” lawsuits directed at the president and to fine attorneys who file them, he said.
Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story from Long Beach.
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Jones Suitt Filed in ’94
A chronology of the Paula Jones case:
* May 6, 1994: Paula Corbin Jones files a sexual harassment lawsuit seeking $700,000 in damages from President Clinton, whom she accuses of making sexual advances on May 8, 1991, while he was governor of Arkansas.
* June 10, 1994: An Arkansas state trooper acknowledges that he saw Jones enter a hotel room occupied by then-Gov. Clinton in 1991, but he insists she did so on her own initiative.
* June 27, 1994: In his first formal response to the lawsuit, Clinton denies the charges and asserts that he ought to be immune from such litigation while serving in the White House.
* July 21, 1994: Federal judge Susan W. Wright delays the case until after the 1996 presidential election, and stays Clinton does not have to respond until the immunity issue is resolved.
* Dec. 28, 1994: Judge Wright agrees to delay the trial until after Clinton leaves office, but gives lawyers permission to question Clinton and others under oath about Jones’ sexual harassment claim.
* Feb. 24, 1995: Judge Wright rules that Jones’ attorneys may not question the president, former Arkansas state troopers or anyone else who might have information about her claims.
* Jan. 9, 1996: A federal appeals court says Clinton must respond to the civil case, saying he is neither immune from damage suits for his private behavior nor entitled to delay simply because he holds high office.
* June 24, 1996: In a move that delays court proceedings until after the November election, the Supreme Court agrees to decide whether a president is protected while in office from responding to lawsuits arising from his actions as a private citizen.
* May 27, 1997: The Supreme Court rules that Jones’ lawsuit against Clinton can proceed immediately.
Researched by D’JAMILA SALEM FITZGERALD / Los Angeles Times