The President's Legal Woes

May 28, 1994

The Justice Department has taken criticism for researching ++ whether a president may be sued for civil damages for alleged acts before he takes office. It will probably take even more criticism if, as expected, it files a legal brief supporting Bill Clinton's argument that he may not be sued. It seems to us appropriate for the department to provide such legal advice and assistance to a president. As the department's Office of Legal Counsel put it, if there are "institutional issues affecting the functioning of the. . . office of the presidency," it would be "appropriate" for the department to say so.

Though we agree the department can perform in this role, we happen to disagree with the argument the OLC is said to be prepared to make -- that a president can't be sued for acts in his earlier career. We believe that as a general proposition a president can be sued for private conduct before he entered the White House. In this particular case, as we have said before (editorial, May 11), we regard Paula Corbin Jones' charges of unwanted sexual advances by then Governor Clinton to be motivated by politics and greed. We don't believe she would suffer an injustice if she got nowhere with her suit.

Some conservative Republican critics of Bill Clinton seem to be arguing today that the mere raising of such charges by a powerless woman against a powerful man discredits the man. The last time we heard that argument it was being made was by liberal Democrats during the second Clarence Thomas hearings, the ones held after Anita Hill charged him with sexual harassment. We said it was a "revolting" argument then, and we still think so. Even the high and mighty are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Much of the Hill-Thomas debate was not so much pro-her as anti-him. Same thing now. Mrs. Jones' lawyers and fund-raisers and Republican cheerleaders in Congress are out to embarrass and hobble the president, not to repair the purported injury to her. Politics is a rough business, but harassing a president this way for political gain goes too far. To the degree that he is distracted by legal challenges and worried about his legal bills, his performance in office will be diminished, to the detriment of the whole nation.

The president's legal bills are a cause for concern. Mr. Clinton is considering establishing a legal defense fund. If that comes to pass, it is bound to raise questions about conflicts of interest and end-runs around campaign finance laws. Better the Clintons, who are millionaires and whose income was nearly $300,000 last year, just dig deep into their own resources, or mortgage future book contract advances, than that. That they might have to says something ugly about the legal system.

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