JIM LEHRER: Today's two major Supreme Court cases are first tonight. One was a decision, the other a hearing. The decision was the unanimous ruling that Paula Corbin Jones can proceed with her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton while he is in office. NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor of the American Lawyer and Legal Times is here. He wrote an extensive piece in the American Lawyer last November on the Paul Jones case. Stuart, welcome. First, what was the legal issue before the court today?
STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: The sole issue is whether the President's status as President would warrant a constitutional decision by the court barring Paula Jones from proceeding with her lawsuit which seeks damages against him for his personal conduct before he was President, or, in fact, barring any private civil damage lawsuit from proceeding against the President until after he leaves office. President Clinton said that the Constitution so required and that the court should so require it even as matter of prudence, even if not as a matter of constitutional law. The court unanimously and emphatically said, no, and rejected the President's position on both those questions.
JIM LEHRER: On what grounds?
STUART TAYLOR: First, the court said there's no precedent that supports the President's position. They looked at relevant precedents. They said the history of early pronouncements as to presidential immunity offers no support, and they said the President's most serious argument is they put it, which was that his time and energy would be frittered away by private lawsuits if this one was allowed to go forward, had little support either in history, because, as the court pointed out, there--he's only the third President in history to be sued over his personal conduct while in office; nor the court said did it seem that it would take very much of his time to defend this particular lawsuit if it's properly managed by the trial judge when it goes forward below.
JIM LEHRER: And the vote was unanimous on this, right?
STUART TAYLOR: The vote was unanimous. Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee, concurred in the result, which meant that he did not share every aspect of the majority opinion but he came to the same bottom line.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the bottom line was a constitutional bottom line, but the court in its opinion said there could be delays in fact if the trial judge said so, is that right?
STUART TAYLOR: The court--it's important to distinguish two things. One, the trial judge in this case, Judge Susan Weber Wright, did, in fact, say in her initial ruling on this that she would allow discovery of evidence to go forward but not a trial. The Supreme Court said, wrong, that she should not have reached that ruling; that it was at the very least premature, unless and until the President makes a particular showing that there would be a very serious burden on him of letting this trial go forward. The court indicated they thought it would be hard for him to make that showing. In particular, it pointed out that he could testify as he has in certain criminal cases by deposition from the White House; he wouldn't have to be present at a trial if it went forward; and, therefore, the court said the idea that it's going to take so much of his time that he can't attend to the business of his office didn't seem very plausible.
JIM LEHRER: But in the opinion the court--Justice Stevens said that if the judge thought otherwise on the merits, if something came up, did he not, that the judge could certainly do that, but not unconstitutional perhaps?
STUART TAYLOR: He left a little window of possibility if the President comes forward after further litigation and shows that a trial would--that allowing a trial to go forward would impinge very directly on his time and energy. He left a little window for a trial judge as a matter of discretion to postpone the trial, certainly to postpone it for as long as necessary for the President to do urgent business, but I'd say the President doesn't get much comfort on the idea that the trial judge could read this opinion and then go back and say, well, I think I'll put it off until after he leaves office.
JIM LEHRER: Because the fact of the matter, a trial judge already has that discretion--doesn't a judge have that right--to delay a case any time her or she wants to?
STUART TAYLOR: They have a lot of discretion to delay cases for a lot of different reasons, but the Justice Stevens' opinion said here that they have no categorical power to say because Bill Clinton is the President I'm not going to make him face trial until after he leaves office. If he wants to come forward and say, well, I can't go to trial in August 1998 because I'm at a NATO meeting or something, surely the trial judge would say, well, we'll put it off till September then, and if he's got another problem in September maybe it gets put off and put off and put off. That possibility remains, but the general thrust of the unanimous opinion is that--is that this trial--assuming that the various other procedural barriers come down, because the President will also move that this case be thrown out on the ground that even if he did everything Paula Jones says, it violated no law. But if she can clear those types of hurdles, this decision seems to suggest that a trial should go forward.
JIM LEHRER: For those of you who watch the Supreme Court for a living, was this an expected decision, or a surprise?
STUART TAYLOR: It was quite a surprise to me and I think to most who went to the oral argument, listening carefully, as we do in oral arguments.
JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory when this case was argued.
STUART TAYLOR: It was January 13th.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
STUART TAYLOR: And I think that--yes--and the Justices seemed very much interested in both sides of the argument and a lot of people coming out of the argument, myself included, said, well, the likeliest outcome is they'll probably split the difference somehow. They probably, like the trial judge, won't say he has to go to trial but they may let some discovery go forward because of her important interest in preserving evidence. Witnesses could die; they could forget things. That was--that was what a lot of people expected. And so when the court unanimously today came forward and said the trial should go forward, unless and until the President can show a very specific reason, which he hasn't done yet why it shouldn't, that was quite a surprise, I think.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, Stuart, thank you very much.