WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, voicing worry over a history-making clash between two branches of government, asked the Supreme Court yesterday to grant him immunity from private lawsuits until he leaves office.
Acting through his private lawyers, Clinton appealed a lower-court ruling that said he was not entitled to delay a sexual-misconduct suit by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.
Clinton said the case raises an issue of "extraordinary national importance": Can a court require a president, while in office, to defend against a private lawsuit? If Jones' lawsuit goes ahead, the appeal contended, a trial judge in Arkansas handling the case would be setting "priorities for the president's time and energies."
Jones' lawsuit claims that Clinton, as Arkansas governor, made unwanted sexual advances in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. The case could remain on hold through the election campaign, even if the court agrees to hear it.
Jones' lawyers have said they will file a swift answer to the appeal, in hopes of getting the court to act on the case before it recesses for summer, probably by the end of June.
Should the court act by then to reject Clinton's appeal, Jones' lawyers would seek prompt questioning of the president and others to gather evidence for a trial. Clinton's aides regard the prospect of any questioning of the president about Jones' allegations as troublesome politically.
Clinton's appeal seeks a ruling going beyond a 1982 Supreme Court decision, in a case involving former President Richard M. Nixon. Then, the court ruled that presidents are immune to lawsuits while in office, when the suit is an attack on a presidential action.
Clinton wants the court to extend that in-office immunity to lawsuits even if based on actions he is accused of taking before becoming president.
Pub Date: 5/16/96