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RULING ON HARASSMENT SUIT IS BOTH WIN, LOSS FOR CLINTON

SHARE RULING ON HARASSMENT SUIT IS BOTH WIN, LOSS FOR CLINTON

In a compromise decision, a federal district judge ruled on Wednesday that the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against President Clinton should not go to trial until after he leaves office.

The judge, Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock, Ark., also decided that the parties could proceed with pretrial fact-finding to ensure that the lawsuit filed by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula C. Jones, would not be compromised by fading memories, disappearing witnesses or dated evidence. And in a setback for the White House, the judge said Jones' lawyers could question Clinton.Both sides were winners and losers on Wednesday. Judge Wright rejected Clinton's assertion that the president should have complete immunity from civil suits, including those resulting from actions before he took office, saying she could find no constitutional basis for it.

But the judge also said that she recognized that a trial would constitute a significant burden for a president. And she said that since

Jones waited until the next-to-last day before the statute of limitations had expired, she saw no strong reason not to delay the case.

Jones' lawyers had sought to begin pretrial fact-finding in anticipation of a quick trial on her charge that Clinton made a crude sexual advance at a convention in 1991.

But the decision hardly settles the unusual immunity issues raised by the case. It merely clears the path for a round of appeals that are likely to delay the case, including fact finding and depositions, for many more months. Even if Judge Wright's ruling were overturned on appeal, it is likely the earliest the case could get to trial would be after the next presidential election in November 1996.

Recognizing that a trial would be politically damaging to Clinton, even if he ultimately won, the president's lawyers have tried to keep the case from ever getting to a jury by contending that he has immunity from such lawsuits. The wrangling over the immunity issue has so far worked to the White House's advantage.

Still, Clinton's lawyers are now expected to move to stop any effort to have the president questioned by Jones' lawyers. Carl S. Rauh, one of Clinton's lawyers, said the president was gratified that the judge agreed to postpone the trial, but that there would now be an appeal to prevent pretrial fact-finding.

"We will appeal the discovery aspect of the decision because there is no doubt it is distracting to the president," Rauh said.

But Joseph Cammarata, a lawyer for Jones, said the president and other witnesses would soon be interviewed. "We believe it's going to be a very exhaustive process," he said. "It will take some time."

Although Judge Wright on Wednesday rejected the claim of immunity, she found that the special nature of the office of president required a delay. She also said, "This is not a case in which any necessity exists to rush to trial."

"The situation here is that the plaintiff filed this action two days before the three-year statute of limitations expired," the judge said. "Obviously, plaintiff Jones was in no rush to get her case to court and, in fact, has stated publicly and in her brief that her lawsuit came about in an effort to clear her name of allegations of sexual activity involving then-Governor Clinton."