WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- A federal judge yesterday shut down the sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton for at least several months, temporarily barring any questioning of the president or others about his conduct while he was governor of Arkansas.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock ruled that no part of Paula Corbin Jones' $700,000 lawsuit against Mr. Clinton and an Arkansas state trooper can go ahead while the president appeals his claim of legal immunity.
The decision will thwart efforts by Ms. Jones' lawyers to question not only Mr. Clinton, but also women other than Ms. Jones and state troopers who guarded Mr. Clinton when he was governor.
Ms. Jones' attorneys had said that they wanted to find out whether there was "a pattern of conduct" of using Arkansas state police "for private functions" of Mr. Clinton.
Joseph Cammarata, one of her lawyers, said last night that the new order means "we have got to sit and wait" until the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis decides the president's claim that as long as he is in office, he is immune to the lawsuit. As a result of recent delays in procedures at the appeals court, Mr. Cammarata said, Judge Wright's order "effectively pushes this back to the end of the year."
If the case moved on to the Supreme Court, the delay could stretch well into 1996.
Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Clinton's main lawyer, was out of town and could not be reached. His other attorneys also were unavailable. They are handling the president's side of the lawsuit, which Ms. Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed in May. Ms. Jones makes separate claims against Arkansas State Trooper Danny Ferguson, who has his own lawyer.
In her suit, Ms. Jones claims that Mr. Clinton made sexual advances toward her, including exposing himself, in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, when he was governor. She accused Trooper Ferguson of helping to arrange the hotel encounter and of later making public comments that harmed her reputation.
The president's lawyers claim that the Constitution gives the president immunity from a lawsuit such as Ms. Jones' until the president leaves the White House. They wanted Judge Wright to throw out the case but then give Ms. Jones permission to restart it once the president returned to private life.
Late last year, Judge Wright rejected that plea but postponed the trial anyway until after Mr. Clinton is out of office, to protect the president from being diverted from his duties to take part in a trial.
She also ruled, however, that questioning of the president, Trooper Ferguson and others could proceed in the meantime.
The president is appealing that decision and has asked Judge Wright to hold up all action on the claims against him and Trooper Ferguson while the appeal proceeds. That is what the judge did yesterday in a five-page order. Once the case moved on to the appeals court, she said, she lost jurisdiction over Ms. Jones' case against Mr. Clinton.
Although Judge Wright has said she still has the authority to proceed with preliminary phases of the lawsuit against Trooper Ferguson, as Ms. Jones' lawyers had urged, she said she would not do so, The judge said the cases are too closely linked to split them up.
"Trooper Ferguson's testimony is among the most important in this case," the judge said. If he could not testify about what Mr. Clinton may have told him to do in 1991 and about any aspect of Mr. Clinton's alleged role, his testimony "would be a hollow shell," she said.
Ms. Jones' lawyers plan extensive questioning of Mr. Clinton, Trooper Ferguson and others, who are unidentified, about Mr. Clinton's private life as governor. "There's a lot to be established," one of her attorneys, Gilbert K. Davis, said in late December.