Clinton's lawyers seek to delay Paula Jones case

August 11, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's lawyers, accusing Paula Corbin Jones and her backers of trying to frustrate his presidency, force him out of office and deny him re-election, asked a federal judge yesterday to set aside for years her sexual harassment lawsuit.

In a hefty document that weaves legal arguments with political resentments, the president's private attorneys said the case should be dismissed now, with Ms. Jones free to start it over after he leaves office. For the first time, the lawyers asked that legal claims by Ms. Jones against an Arkansas state trooper, based on the same alleged sexual incident, also be held off until Mr. Clinton is no longer president.

The presidential claim of immunity is expected to be supported officially by the Justice Department, but at this point is a claim being made only by the president personally through his own privately paid lawyers.

Justice Department officials are engaged in a debate over just how to join in the immunity claim.

The Clinton papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock, Ark., accused Ms. Jones of seeking "notoriety" and money from suing the president over an encounter in a local hotel room in May 1991, "an event which the president denies ever occurred," according to his lawyers, Robert S. Bennett and Carl S. Rauh.

She "has allowed her name to be used in connection with fund-raising campaigns by political organizations vehemently opposed to the president," the document added.

And, whether she intended to do so or not, her lawsuit "has entwined the judicial system in political maneuvering aimed at -- distracting President Clinton from achieving important policy objectives, and ultimately, at ousting him from office," Mr.

Clinton's lawyers argued.

In 67 pages of legal reasoning, 13 pages of constitutional history and 109 pages of background documents, the president's attorneys put forth two specific legal claims:

First, the Constitution gives the president immunity to private citizens' civil damages lawsuits as long as the president serves, in order not to distract the chief executive from his official duties and to avoid inviting a string of such lawsuits.

That immunity must exist, the lawyers argued, whether the claim is based on something that supposedly happened before a president took office, or while he is president.

Because Mr. Clinton has been sued personally, "his intense personal participation" in the case would be required if it went forward now, the document argued.

Second, even if the constitutional immunity plea is not accepted by Judge Wright, the judge can delay it until after Mr. Clinton has left office to avoid having the court "entangled in partisan politics" aimed at destroying the president's reputation.

With claims of the kind Ms. Jones has made, the civil courts "could become a tool of partisan manipulation" by those seeking to "embarrass the president politically" or to deter him from carrying out certain policies, Mr. Clinton's lawyers argue.

The lawsuit against Mr. Clinton began in May, when Ms. Jones, a former Arkansas state employee now living in California, sued him for $700,000 in damages, accusing him of making an alleged unwanted sexual advance in a Little Rock hotel room.

She also named State Trooper Danny Ferguson, claiming that he helped arrange the encounter and harmed her reputation by the way he described the incident in a magazine interview. So far, Ms. Jones' lawsuit has gone nowhere in Judge Wright's court. The judge decided last month that nothing is to be done with it until after a final ruling on Mr. Clinton's claim of presidential immunity.

After Ms. Jones' lawyers file a reply to yesterday's plea, Judge Wright is expected to hold a hearing on the immunity issue, and then rule.

Appeals to higher courts could take months, and perhaps longer. In the meantime, Ms. Jones' case would not go to trial.

Still, the legal document yesterday ridiculed the legal claims Ms. Jones had made, contended that all her claims could be #F defeated if ever put to a test in court, and chastised her and her lawyers for making "titillating or degrading" remarks in the lawsuit about Mr. Clinton -- including a "wholly gratuitous" comment that she could identify Mr. Clinton's private parts, a remark that his lawyers said was "geared to the tabloids rather than the courts."

The immunity claim Mr. Clinton's lawyers make has never been ruled upon by any court. While the Supreme Court declared in 1982 that presidents are totally immune to civil lawsuits for actions while in office, Mr. Clinton is the first to raise an immunity issue against a claim based on pre-presidential activity.

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