Clinton to seek immunity in sex harassment claim

June 28, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton plans to ask a federal judge to rule that he is immune to any civil lawsuit -- including Paula Corbin Jones' claim of unwanted sexual advances -- until he is out of the White House, his lawyers disclosed in court papers yesterday.

The immunity claim, to be spelled out in full early in August, will ask U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock, Ark., to throw out the Jones case -- but leave Ms. Jones with the option of filing it anew when Mr. Clinton is no longer president.

Noting that the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the Constitution gives presidents immunity from any civil lawsuits for actions taken while in office, the private attorneys representing Mr. Clinton want that decision extended to insulate a president from any lawsuits based on pre-presidential incidents.

A president's need to put up a legal defense to civil claims while still serving, Mr. Clinton's lawyers argued, would distract the nation's chief executive and bog him down in disruptions. At this point, they went on, Mr. Clinton should have to give his attention only to the immunity issue.

Thus, the president's attorneys urged Judge Wright to settle the immunity dispute first, with no other filings or proceedings in the case until after immunity is granted or denied, even if it goes to the Supreme Court.

Ms. Jones' lawyers last week urged Judge Wright to require Mr. Clinton and his lawyers to provide, all at once, the full scope of their legal response to the lawsuit, including any defenses they have to her actual claims.

In early May, Ms. Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, sued Mr. Clinton, seeking $700,000 in civil damages. She alleged that he sexually harassed and assaulted her in a Little Rock hotel room in May 1991 while he was governor of Arkansas.

If Judge Wright decides to focus initially only on the constitutional question of immunity, it would allow Mr. Clinton and his attorneys to postpone a trial and any further airing in court of Ms. Jones' claims.

Although the president's lawyers insisted yesterday that Ms. Jones' claims are "meritless" and are subject to a variety of other legal challenges, they contended that the judge should not focus now on anything but immunity.

Mr. Clinton's lead private attorney, Robert S. Bennett, has said repeatedly that the Jones lawsuit is flawed, that the incidents she recounts never happened. Yesterday, the president's own formal denial was put on record in the new filing.

The presidential attorneys did not go deeply into the specifics of the immunity claim yesterday, saying they would do so by Aug. 5. But they gave a summary of the claim that they would be making, indicating that they would stop short of claiming that a president can never be sued for any activity that occurred before becoming president.

"The immunity motion" they will file, the attorneys said, "will raise serious issues which go to the constitutionality of compelling an incumbent president to litigate private civil damages claims." It also will challenge the judge's authority to decide anything, in the beginning, beyond the immunity issue.

Their legal request, the attorneys added, will explicitly concede that Ms. Jones would have a "right to reinstate the suit after the president leaves office."

One of Ms. Jones' lawyers, Gilbert K. Davis of Fairfax, Va., said the new move by the president's lawyers amounted to "an effort to try to delay, a hope to keep this going up and down in the courts, perhaps until he is out of office."

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