Clinton can be sued on Jones sex claims, appeals court rules Panel says his immunity is limited to official acts

January 10, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Kerry A. White of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is not immune to a lawsuit by a woman who says he made unwanted sexual advances toward her in 1991 and has no right to delay answering questions or to postpone a trial, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

The 2-1 ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could lead to prompt demands for questioning Mr. Clinton about claims by the woman, Paula Corbin Jones, that he made sexual advances toward her when he was Arkansas governor and she was a state employee.

Ms. Jones' lawyers have vowed to question him at length about his relationships with women, as well as on the specifics of their client's claims. Mr. Clinton and his lawyers have denied her charges and sought to block them in court.

Robert S. Bennett, the president's private lawyer, focused on the dissenting judge's support of a delay in the case while Mr. Clinton remains in the White House, and predicted that ultimately the Supreme Court will spare the president from defending himself while he serves.

Gilbert K. Davis, one of Ms. Jones' lawyers, told reporters after the ruling: "The president will now be held accountable for his assault on Paula Jones. His argument that he has risen too high to be accountable is rejected by the court." Ms. Jones is seeking $700,000 in damages.

Despite yesterday's ruling, the president's lawyers still have options to pursue challenges that could keep the case from moving very far until after this fall's presidential election.

They will ask the full Circuit Court to reconsider the ruling by the three-judge panel in St. Louis.

They could then take the case to the Supreme Court and use all the time allowed by the court's procedures -- options that very likely would mean that the case would not come up in the court's current term. Ms. Jones' lawyers conceded that further delays might take up to "a year or so."

The president's lawyers could ask for postponements while those steps are taken. But if none are granted, Mr. Clinton would then be subject to questioning under oath by Ms. Jones' attorneys. That questioning might occur behind closed doors, but public leaks would be inevitable, Mr. Clinton's aides and lawyers have said.

The Circuit Court majority, in ruling against Mr. Clinton's claim of constitutional immunity while in office, said the immunity that presidents have to suits during office applies only to official actions. "The president like all other government officials is subject to the same laws that apply to all other members of our society," the majority said.

All but one of Ms. Jones' complaints against the president, the majority added, "are unrelated to his duties as president."

The one other claim is a libel charge for remarks by a White House press aide. The Circuit Court told a federal judge in Little Rock, Ark., who would handle the Jones case, to reconsider whether the libel claim should be postponed until after Mr. Clinton leaves office.

The court said explicitly that any action Mr. Clinton took before becoming president may proceed. Ms. Jones' claims that can proceed now, the majority said, are that he violated her civil rights by his sexual misconduct when he was Arkansas governor.

Ms. Jones contends that in 1991, when Mr. Clinton attended a Little Rock convention where she was working at a state exhibit, he invited her to a hotel room where he made an unwanted sexual gesture and remarks.

Besides her civil rights suit against Mr. Clinton, she has sued Danny Ferguson, an Arkansas state trooper, claiming he took her up to the room and stood guard.

All three judges on the Circuit Court panel rejected Mr. Clinton's claim that Ms. Jones' civil suit should be dismissed outright, which would have left her only with a right to file it anew after he leaves office -- next year, or in five years if he is re-elected.

The president's lawyers contend the Constitution gives the president temporary immunity to lawsuits, even suits based on incidents before he became president.

None of the three appellate judges accepted the total immunity claimed by the president. Only one judge accepted Mr. Clinton's backup argument that the case could remain in court but should be delayed until he leaves office.

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