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Court says Clinton suit by Paula Jones may proceed

May 27, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today that Paula Jones can pursue her sex-harassment lawsuit against President Clinton while he is in office, but left room for a trial judge to delay proceedings if they interfere with the president’s duties.

The Constitution does not shield the president from having to face lawsuits over acts unrelated to his official duties, the justices ruled unanimously in a case that already has been a major embarrassment to the president.

However, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court, ``A stay of either the trial or (pre-trial fact-finding) might be justified by considerations that do not require the recognition of any constitutional immunity.″

``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,″ Stevens said.

Stevens said the court did not decide whether a judge could compel the president to appear in court at any specific time or place.

``We assume that the testimony of the president ... may be taken at the White House at a time that will accommodate his busy schedule, and that, if a trial is held, there would be no necessity for the president to attend in person, though he could elect to do so,″ Stevens wrote.

The ruling delighted Jones’ supporters.

``Paula has always felt that the courts would find that no man is above the law,″ said Cindy Hayes, head of a fund set up to pay Jones’ legal expenses. ``We are still shaking from the decision. It’s been two years. It’s been a very long time this poor girl has had to wait.″

The president has denied Jones’ allegation that he propositioned her in an Arkansas hotel room in 1991, the court said.

Today’s ruling means Clinton could become the first president to go to trial while in office to defend against a private lawsuit. However, his lawyers still can seek dismissal of Jones’ claim on other grounds, or they could renew their previous effort to reach a settlement with her lawyers.

Clinton _ already enmeshed in Whitewater and fund-raising investigations _ argued that dealing with Jones’ lawsuit would take time away from his presidential duties. His lawyers also said that giving a trial judge control over when Clinton must be in court would violate the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.

Jones’ lawyers argued the case is an uncomplicated one and that a judge could schedule a trial around Clinton’s presidential duties. They said the trial should be held now because witnesses’ memories could fade or evidence could be lost by the time Clinton leaves office.

Jones says Clinton summoned her to a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, exposed himself to her and asked her to perform a sex act. He was governor of Arkansas at the time and she was a state worker.

Jones’ lawsuit says she can identify ``distinguishing characteristics″ of Clinton’s private parts. She sued in 1994 and is seeking $700,000 in damages.

Clinton has denied ever having an encounter with Jones and has said he cannot recall whether he ever met her.

The president’s lawyer tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement before Jones sued.

A federal judge in Arkansas ruled that Jones’ lawsuit should be delayed until Clinton left office but that pre-trial fact-finding could begin while he remained president.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January 1996, however, that the case could go to trial during Clinton’s presidency. It said the trial judge should manage the case to avoid interfering with the president’s official duties.

Today, the Supreme Court said the district judge’s decision to delay the trial until after Clinton leaves office was an abuse of discretion.

``Such a lengthy and categorical stay takes no account whatever of (Jones’) interest in bringing the case to trial,″ Stevens wrote.

The judge also gave undue weight to concerns that a trial might lead to other unrelated lawsuits that might hamper Clinton’s conduct of his office, the justice said.

``If and when that should occur, the court’s discretion would permit it to manage those actions in such fashion (including deferral of trial) that interference with the president’s duties would not occur,″ Stevens said. ``But no such impingement upon the president’s conduct of his office was shown here.″

Stevens wrote that Congress could give sitting presidents protection against private lawsuits if it desired, but that the Constitution does not.

``Like every other citizen who properly invokes (federal court) jurisdiction, (Jones) has a right to an orderly disposition of her claims,″ Stevens said.

In 1982, the high court ruled that presidents cannot be sued for damages involving their official duties, even after they leave office. The prospect of such lawsuits could harm a president’s decision-making, the court said in refusing to allow a government employee who lost his job to sue President Nixon.

But until today, the justices had never said whether a sitting president could be forced to answer a lawsuit over acts unrelated to his official duties.

There are only three other known cases in which a sitting president was involved in a lawsuit over acts outside his presidential duties. Lawsuits against President Theodore Roosevelt and President Truman were dismissed before they became president, and appeals courts upheld the dismissals while they were in office.

President Kennedy was sued before he became president over an auto accident during his 1960 campaign, and the lawsuit was settled while he was in office.

The case is Clinton vs. Jones, 95-1853.

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