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Suit Challenges Clinton Immunity

Court to decide if a president can stand trial

In a case that could substantially expand the legal immunity of sitting presidents, lawyers for Bill Clinton will ask the US Supreme Court on Monday to delay a sexual-harassment suit filed against Mr. Clinton until he leaves office.

They argue that the president is too busy conducting the business of the nation to risk becoming distracted by private civil litigation. And they warn that if the suit filed by Paula Corbin Jones in 1994 is allowed to proceed, it could trigger an avalanche of frivolous copycat suits seeking damages from the president.

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Attorneys for Mrs. Jones counter that Clinton should be legally accountable for his private actions, just as any other American citizen is. The president is attempting to place himself above the law with the legal status of a king, they say.

"Do we have a nation of kings or a nation where there are truly public servants," asks Joseph Cammarata, one of Jones's attorneys. "Do we have a nation where people are accountable for their own personal private conduct, or where some, because of positions of power, aren't accountable?"

Proponents for limited immunity say the Jones case wouldn't be dismissed, only delayed. The question, they say, isn't whether the case goes to trial, but when.

"The presidency is a unique office with unique challenges and responsibilities. If you allow this kind of lawsuit to proceed it will likely generate more such lawsuits in this litigious society," says Susan Low Bloch of Georgetown University Law Center, who helped prepare a friend-of-the-court brief on Clinton's behalf.

No US court has ever ruled that a president is entitled to immunity from civil lawsuits filed as a result of personal, unofficial actions. Courts have held that presidents have absolute immunity from suits related to official acts.

In Clinton's case, the alleged sexual harassment occurred in 1991 before he was elected president while he was still governor of Arkansas.

In her lawsuit, Jones charges that then-Governor Clinton lewdly propositioned her. At the time, she was a low-level state employee and says she was fearful of losing her job after she rejected Clinton's alleged sexual advances. Jones, who is now married with two children, charges that Clinton exposed himself to her while asking her to perform a sex act.

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Political observers say a trial would be embarrassing and politically damaging to the president no matter what the outcome.

"There is almost nothing good that can happen to Bill Clinton as a result of the case, even if he is innocent," says George Edwards of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Prior press reports of Clinton's past involvement with other women may help to dampen public shock over the charges, says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We are not going to wake up shocked," he says, "when we hear Paula Jones make these charges about our president."

But the risks to the White House remain significant, particularly if a verdict is returned against Clinton. "This will be the most sensational trial of the century," says Mr. Edwards.

The stakes have risen even higher for the president with recent news articles suggesting Jones's case may be stronger than many media analysts had initially concluded. The American Lawyer's Stuart Taylor conducted an in-depth examination of the case and found Jones's evidence "highly persuasive." A similar report appeared as the cover story in the current issue of Newsweek.

Among evidence supporting Jones are statements by two friends who say she related details of her encounter with Clinton on the same day that it allegedly occurred. She later also told her two sisters and her mother of Clinton's alleged conduct. All could be called to testify at a trial.

But Jones isn't without her own baggage. She promised the first lawyer she hired in the case a cut of any book and movie deals. She now says that she is not interested in profiting from the case and that any award she wins will go to charity. Jones's four-count complaint seeks $700,000 in damages from Clinton.

By comparison, the president's lawyers have already rung up legal bills of between $1.5 to $2 million.

In the 2-1/2 years since Jones filed her suit, the Clinton defense team has adopted a successful strategy of delay. By focusing exclusively on the issue of presidential immunity, the lawyers have effectively frozen the case - blocking all evidence-gathering and questioning of the president.

Whether by design or not, the tactic prevented prospective evidence from becoming an issue in the election campaign last year.

It has also stalled efforts by Jones and her lawyers to make their case. Legal experts say delay can be an effective way to fight a lawsuit. With the passage of time, the memories of witnesses fade, evidence gets lost, and some witnesses may even die or move away.

Clinton's chief lawyer, Robert Bennett, is asking the high court to postpone any activity in the case until 2001, when Clinton leaves office. Jones waited until the end of a three-year statute of limitations to file her suit against Clinton, Mr. Bennett says. This suggests she wasn't in any rush for justice. He argues that a further four-year delay won't prejudice her case.

Jones's attorneys, Gilbert Davis and Mr. Cammarata of Fairfax, Va., counter that their client has a constitutional right to speedy access to the courts. They say that the trial judge will be able to accommodate any presidential scheduling conflicts and that the trial itself will be a relatively straightforward legal proceeding that should take "days" rather than weeks or months.

Legal experts say the high court must weigh the competing interests of Jones's constitutional right to have access to the courts and equal protection under the law, even when the defendant happens to be the president of the United States. On the other side, the court must weigh the demands of a civil trial on the nation's chief executive, and the constitutional implications of a trial judge issuing instructions to the president.

Clinton's request for presidential immunity has been reviewed by two other courts before reaching the Supreme Court last year. In December 1994, a federal judge ruled that the trial should be postponed until Clinton leaves office, but she decided that Jones's attorneys could begin questioning Clinton. Clinton appealed that decision. The appeals court ruled in January 1996 that Clinton enjoyed no immunity from private suits, that questioning of the president should begin, and that the case should proceed to trial.

There has never been a similar case before the Supreme Court. In the history of the country, only three other presidents - Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and John F. Kennedy - entered office with personal lawsuits pending. Neither Roosevelt nor Truman sought any presidential immunity. Mr. Kennedy's lawyers lost their bid to have a judge recognize immunity for the newly elected president. His case was later settled prior to trial.

In a 1982 case, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, the high court ruled that presidents enjoy absolute immunity from lawsuits when the suits relate to official actions. The rationale is that if presidents can be sued by anyone adversely affected by their decisions, they might be reluctant to make difficult decisions that could subject them to lawsuits seeking personal damage awards.

The court did not address the question of whether presidents could be sued for their private conduct. That is the question the Supreme Court is expected to settle in William Jefferson Clinton v. Paula Corbin Jones. A ruling is expected this spring.

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