Jones can sue Clinton, court rules President has no right to block her lawsuit during second term; More pressure to settle; Unanimous decision allows sex case to be pursued further

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In a stinging and surprising rebuff of President Clinton, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that he has no constitutional right to block Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit against him until after he leaves office.

Rejecting every argument the president made to keep Jones' case on hold for 3 1/2 more years, the court said such a delay would take "no account [of Jones'] interest in bringing the case to trial."


The justices acknowledged the "high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive." But they said the Constitution gives a sitting president no immunity to lawsuits involving his private actions.

The outcome of the lawsuit remains much in doubt. Clinton's lawyers will soon file motions to dismiss the suit on grounds that it is without merit. If they fail, they will try other maneuvers intended to end the case without a trial.


In Clinton's favor, the Supreme Court said the trial judge handling the case was obliged to consider whether the president could perform his job while contesting the lawsuit. One justice, Stephen G. Breyer, even remarked that the case perhaps ought not go to trial while Clinton is in office.

Even so, the ruling is likely to increase pressure on Clinton's side to settle the politically charged case out of court. Jones' lawyers made it clear that they are open -- even eager -- for a settlement.

Jones' lawsuit asks for $700,000 in damages, but the actions and statements of both sides have signaled for the past three years that the case was never primarily about money. Advisers to Clinton -- who has already paid three times in legal bills what Jones asked for in damages -- concede privately that their chief concern has been political fallout.

For the president, the case has been an enormous embarrassment. Clinton managed to delay the matter on appeals until after the 1996 election, but the case has made him the target of late-night TV comics and of conservative critics who question his character.

Jones contends that Clinton used a state trooper to summon her to a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, when Clinton was Arkansas governor and she was a state employee. There, she alleges, Clinton exposed himself and made a crude sexual advance.

Clinton's lawyers have denounced her assertions as "tabloid trash" and a "vicious and mean-spirited" publicity stunt.

For her part, Jones said she seeks only vindication and has vowed to give to charity any money she receives beyond expenses.

"Paula Jones' primary interest -- and it has been this way from the beginning -- is the redemption of her reputation," one of Jones' lawyers, Gilbert K. Davis, said at a news conference yesterday. "Whether that comes by a statement by the defendants that is an apology, a statement that acknowledges that she was there and her conduct was good conduct, it's up to our opponents."


Settlement unlikely

Robert S. Bennett, the president's private lawyer, replied: "I'm always happy to hear from them [Jones' lawyers]. But it's most unlikely that the case will be settled."

The president, he said, "is not going to pay them any money out of his pocket; he adamantly denies this." If settlement talks begin, Bennett added, "we're not going to take any actions at all that undercut" the president's denial.

William J. Kilberg, a Washington lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said: "This is going to be a nasty case from the point of view of the president. It's a he said/she said case, and her lawyers will have an opportunity to look broadly into his extracurricular behavior as governor."

Kilberg added: "I think settlement is the best course for the president, if Ms. Jones will settle for something short of a public apology."

The case could still be delayed for months, or it might never be tried if the president's lawyers can persuade the trial court to throw out the lawsuit as baseless.


The Supreme Court found no risk that the presidency would suffer deeply if the case moves ahead, saying: "There is no possibility that the decision will curtail the scope of the official powers of the executive branch."

Nor did it foresee much danger that Clinton or future presidents might now become engulfed in "a deluge of litigation" like Jones' private lawsuit. History suggests that there won't be many such cases, it said. No sitting president has ever had to go to court to defend against a private lawsuit.

Ruling is a surprise

The ruling -- and especially its unanimity -- were a surprise, because at a hearing in January, the justices seemed concerned about the potential effect of such lawsuits on the presidency.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the most liberal justice, who wrote the decision, indicated that the key factor was that Jones' claims are based on events that occurred before Clinton became president. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that presidents have complete immunity to private lawsuits involving their official acts.

Jones' lawyers have warned that they will use the pretrial discovery process to try to obtain information on whether Clinton approached other women in the same fashion.


"In order to prove a propensity to commit a particular act, one may look to a pattern of conduct," said Joseph Cammarata, Jones' other lawyer. "There have been public reports of a pattern of conduct where then-Governor Clinton has used state troopers, at state expense, for his own personal enjoyment and, in particular, for the procurement of women. It may become an issue in our case that we need to prove or try to establish a pattern of conduct."

The Supreme Court, seeming leery of such tactics, said yesterday that the trial judge should carefully manage every phase of the case: "The high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive, though not justifying a rule of categorical immunity, is a matter that should inform the conduct of the entire proceeding."

The justices said all questioning of Clinton could be done at the White House, when convenient to the president and that Clinton need never show up at a trial unless he wished to.

The court made clear that the president could ask the federal trial judge -- Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock -- to delay the whole case or any part of it.

Breyer, though joining the decision, wrote a separate opinion urging Wright to use particular caution.

Breyer wrote: "It may well be that the trial of this case cannot take place without significantly interfering with the president's ability to carry out his official duties."


After giving the president's claims "our respectful and deliberate consideration," the court said that prior court decisions, the history of the presidency, and the duties of the office could not justify constitutional immunity to such lawsuits during a presidency.

"There is no reason to assume," the court said, that federal

judges "will be either unable to accommodate the president's needs or unfaithful to the tradition of giving the utmost deference to presidential responsibilities."

Pub Date: 5/28/97