Paula Jones can pursue her sex-harassment lawsuit against President
Clinton while he is in office, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. But the justices left room for a trial judge to delay the case to accommodate "the high respect" owed the president's office.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 Clinton.
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 president has denied Jones' allegation that he propositioned her in an Arkansas hotel room in 1991, the court said.
Tuesday'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.
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.