TOPICS > Politics

Clinton in Court?

January 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Three years ago Paul Jones went public with her claim that then Governor Bill Clinton sexually harassed her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991.

PAULA JONES, Plaintiff: (February 1994) He was unloosening his tie. He continued to take my hand and pull me over. And then I was concerned. And I pulled back. Then he tried a second time. He started to get closer to me. He leaned up against a chair. He started to put his hands and slide up my legs. I pushed him back. I got away. He picked at me several times. And it was just humiliating for someone of that nature. You’re supposed to trust somebody like that. I would have never went to that room.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jones, a clerical employee in the Arkansas state government at the time of the alleged incident, came forward after a report in the conservative magazine The American Spectator. In that 1993 article several Arkansas state troopers claimed they frequently arranged liaisons between various women and Gov. Clinton. Jones said the article’s mention of a woman named “Paula” identified her and required her to come forward to protect her reputation. The President has denied the article’s allegations.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (Radio Interview, December 1993) We did nothing wrong. And I don’t want to speculate on the rest of it. I think you know what I have to do is to worry about being President. I have nothing else to say. We–the–the stories are just as they have been said. They’re outrageous, and they’re not so. We have not done anything wrong. The allegations on abuse of the state or the federal positions I have, it’s not true.

PAULA JONES: (February 1994) [crying] I have been telling the truth. I have witnesses. This is not just my word against his. I am committed to see this case through as long as it takes. And in the end I know I will get my good name and reputation back.

KWAME HOLMAN: In May of 1994 Jones filed a lawsuit against Mr. Clinton seeking more than $700,000 in damages. But the issue before the Supreme Court today is not about the allegations made by Paul Jones. Instead, it is a question of timing: Should the case against President Clinton be delayed until he is out of office? The President’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, says, yes.

ROBERT BENNETT, President’s Lawyer: It is unprecedented for a President of the United States to be sued for conduct which occurred prior to the President’s. If you permit the President of the United States to be sued and permit the case to go forward, not just the filing of a lawsuit, think of the consequences. The law says you can’t sue the President for acts while President, for official acts. And the reason for that is the fundamental recognition that you can’t paralyze a presidency by filing–by filing actions against the President.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Paula Jones’ lawyer, Joseph Cammarata, argues a delay will damage his client’s case.

JOSEPH CAMMARATA, Jones’ Lawyer: (ABC “This Week”) Memories will fade. Documents will be lost or destroyed. Witnesses may die or become disabled. And an otherwise meritorious claim could be imperiled. In addition, the claims for defamation, this is a significant case for Paul Jones, her reputation is at stake. And as you all know, all we take to our grave is our good name. And so it’s important that this claim be adjudicated now because if she were to die, or the President were to die, then her claim would be forever lost.

KWAME HOLMAN: If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the President, Paul Jones’ case won’t be heard until after he leaves office in January 2001. If the court rules for Jones, the President could be required to give pretrial depositions and perhaps defend himself on the witness stand.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get more on today’s arguments at the Supreme Court from Eva Rodriguez, correspondent for “Legal Times” and Court TV. Thanks for being with us, Eva.

EVA RODRIGUEZ, Legal Times: Thanks for having me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Beyond what you just heard describe the significance of this case.

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Well, let me put it this way. Last week the court heard a case in which it heard about the right–the so-called right to have a physician assist you in suicide. That case affected each and every one of us in this country. Today, the case that the court heard was much narrower, and it affects only one person at a time. But it happens to be the highest public official in the Executive Branch, the President, himself. And in this case, it’s not just about Bill Clinton, and it’s not just about Paula Jones, but it’s about the type of presidency that we want in this country and will affect any President in the future, regardless of the type of lawsuit that may be filed against him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe what you heard at the court this morning, starting with the President’s side. What did his argue–what did his lawyer argue?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Well, Bob Bennett, who we heard from in the piece, was the first up. And let me tell you, he had about five seconds of uninterrupted time before a Justice jumped in with aggressive questioning. That Justice happened to be O’Connor. But the others followed suit. And what Bob Bennett was arguing was basically this: The President has a job like no other in this country, perhaps like no other in the world. He has a mandate over 216 million people in this country. He cannot be or she, in the future, cannot be diverted from those duties by such things as a private lawsuit. And what the President’s lawyer argued today is, look, we will give Paula Jones her day in court. It just doesn’t have to be right now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the solicitor, the acting solicitor general actually argued also on behalf of the office of the President, is that right?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: That’s absolutely right. He has a unique position of not representing Bill Clinton. But the office of the presidency and clearly the United States has a real interest here. The Executive Branch has a real interest. And that’s the interest that Mr. Dellinger was representing in this case. And he was basically echoing Bob Bennett’s arguments that the President’s time is too dear, not just to himself but to the country as a whole, and he should not be diverted by any kind of lawsuit that’s filed against him, private lawsuit.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What could you tell about how the Justices responded to those arguments based on their questions?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Well, they were extraordinarily skeptical. I mean, these–this court is very aggressive in its questioning–always has been. But today there was a real edge in the voices of some of the Justices, surprisingly enough, Justice O’Connor, for example. She, as well as Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and the Chief Justice, himself, seemed extraordinarily skeptical about the kind of broad and sweeping decision that the President would like. After all, the President was asking not just that a trial be postponed until he leaves office but that no one in the case, including himself, should be deposed while he’s in office. And they seemed extraordinarily skeptical, so much so that when Acting Solicitor General Dellinger was arguing about how little time the President has Justice Scalia chimed in and said, well, gee, I see Presidents all the time on horseback, chopping wood, playing golf; he can’t be that busy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you got the sense that they might decide that he would have the time to answer questions, be deposed, et cetera?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: I got the sense that they thought that the President, yes, could make time, but the real question is: Should he be forced to make time? And that’s a very different issue. Should you have, for example, a judge hauling the President of the United States into court to testify? Should you have a state judge, some of whom, many of whom actually in this country actually are elected, and run on political tickets, should you have say let’s envision a scenario where a Republican-elected judge may have some sort of political agenda that he’d like to fulfill by hauling the President into court, embarrassing him, subjecting him to the spotlight of the public media, should that be the case? Sure, the President can make time, but should he be forced to is a different question. And I’m not sure that the Justices are going to rule against the President on that issue.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You couldn’t tell from their questioning at this point?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: No, not at this point.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the other side, what about Paul Jones’ lawyer, what was he arguing and what about the questions to him?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Paul Jones’s lawyer was basically arguing this: We don’t have a monarchy. No on in this country should be above the law, including the President of the United States. In fact, if anyone should be subject more than other people to the laws and scrutiny of the laws, it should be the highest official in the country. But he ran into trouble, and it was surprising, surprising trouble. When he seemed to concede that not–that the President may in some instances have the right, in fact, have–should be allowed to delay litigation if there are time constraints, if there are legitimate duties that would prevent him from say being deposed or being present at trial. That not only caught those of us in the press gallery off guard, but it caught Justice O’Connor off guard. She jumped in and almost in a castigating tone said to Mr. Davis, “I am totally confused,” because he seemed at that point to be making the argument that the President’s making; indeed, that there may be instances where it’s appropriate to put litigation on “hold.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So are you saying he basically made a mistake in his argument?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: I think he basically made a mistake in this argument. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How influential would something like that be? The Justices have read mounds of paper and all the briefs. How influential could that be?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Well, ultimately, I think it can be influential to this extent, Elizabeth, and that is the Justices, as you mentioned, have come into this case as they do with every case, having read all the documents. They pretty much know in their own minds where they want to go, and oral argument is used to clarify positions to sort of–for some Justices find out if I rule in such and such a way how can this be used in the future, what slippery slope am I embarking on, but making a mistake in oral argument, as in my opinion Gill Davis made, muddies the water. It makes the Justices think, well, wait a second, I thought you were arguing that the President should have no immunity whatsoever. What are you telling me now? So it muddies the waters, and it certainly cannot help him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What precedents came up? What important precedents are there for this case?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Well, one precedent that came up over and over again is a 1982 case by the name of Nixon Vs. Fitzgerald. And in that case the Supreme Court decided by a narrow five to four vote that a President cannot be sued for actions that he took in his official capacity, much in the same way as judges, for example, can’t be sued by parties who just simply didn’t like the decisions that they rendered. But Justice Scalia, Justice Rehnquist, and Justice Kennedy kept making the point over and over again that the Fitzgerald case dealt with official acts. And, in Justice Rehnquist’s words, he doesn’t see that element in this case. After all, this case involves the private actions of a sitting President but before he took office. So there may be a way for the Justices to distinguish Fitzgerald from the present case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If the President wins the case, then this is put off until after 2001. If he loses the case, what happens then?

EVA RODRIGUEZ: It could very well go forward. He could very well be deposed. Other witnesses in the case could be deposed. Interrogatories, questions to other parties, other people in the case could go forward. So he could be enmeshed in fairly rapid order actually in, in the labyrinth that is the legal system.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Eva Rodriguez, thanks for being with us.