Clinton attorneys to seek dismissal of Jones' lawsuit

June 20, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In their rebuttal to the sexual harassment charges filed by ex-Arkansas employee Paula Corbin Jones, President Clinton's attorneys intend to summon the support of some powerful historical allies: John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Richard M. Nixon.

By invoking the names of these former presidents, each of whom helped to define the legal prerogatives of the presidency, the president and his advisers hope to persuade the courts to expand a long-observed principle that has shielded presidents from civil litigation while they are in the White House.

This high-risk legal maneuver will be the centerpiece of an elaborate motion for dismissal that the president plans to file with the court this week in response to Ms. Jones' lawsuit, according to Mr. Clinton's advisers.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who coincidentally was a constitutional law student of Mr. Clinton's at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, is expected to rule on the issue shortly thereafter.

If Mr. Clinton's legal strategy succeeds, he could be spared the embarrassment of responding in detail to Ms. Jones' allegations that while governor of Arkansas he tried to entice her into a sexual liaison in a Little Rock hotel room in May 1991.

But if it fails, his advisers concede, he almost certainly would be forced to endure a court trial that would focus attention on his sexual conduct.

In her vividly descriptive suit filed in early May, Ms. Jones, a former $6.35-an-hour employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, alleged that three years earlier Mr. Clinton lured her into a Little Rock hotel room and asked her for sex.

Mr. Clinton insists that he has no recollection of meeting Ms. Jones. His defenders are known to include witnesses who will testify that Ms.Jones did nothing more than shake hands with the governor that day.

As many lawyers see it, Ms. Jones' sexual harassment case is deficient in a number of respects. Not only did she file her suit after the statute of limitations had expired under the most pertinent laws, but she has not yet substantiated her claim that she suffered retribution in her job after refusing Mr. Clinton's alleged sexual overtures.

Despite the apparent weaknesses of her complaint in that regard, sources said that Mr. Clinton's advisers have told him that Judge Wright is unlikely to dismiss the complaint simply on those grounds.

Mr. Clinton's advisers have concluded that a trial on the merits of the case must be avoided, even if they feel confident of a favorable outcome. That is the reason Mr. Clinton's lawyers are depending so heavily on their claim of presidential immunity to win a dismissal.

Under current law, there is no doubt that presidents are immune from any litigation relating to their official duties. The precedent was established in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982 involving a lawsuit filed against Mr. Nixon by government whistle-blower Ernie Fitzgerald.

But the ruling is silent on lawsuits such as Ms. Jones' that deal with matters beyond the purview of a president's official duties.

Quoting from Adams and Jefferson, the president's lawyers are certain to argue that the nature of the presidency requires the courts to reject suits such as that filed by Ms. Jones, sources said. Adams wrote that subjecting a president to lawsuits would violate the separation of powers by giving the courts authority over him.

But Mr. Clinton's immunity against Ms. Jones' suit should last only as long as he is president, his lawyers will argue. If Ms. Jones wants to refile it after he leaves the White House, nothing should prevent it, in their view.

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