PRESIDENT Clinton's attorneys recently asked the judge in the Paula Corbin Jones case to move up the trial date, arguing that the case needed the controlled setting of a courtroom, away from "gossip, innuendo and hearsay being passed off as fact."
But their aggressive tactics are the last thing the president needs. Instead, the better tactic would be to walk away from the matter tomorrow, by taking immediate steps to get the sordid lawsuit off the front page.
How to do this? The president would simply tell his attorneys to stop defending the case. In legal terms, he can ''default.''
Dismiss the attorneys
Mr. Clinton should simply dismiss his attorneys and announce that he would rather govern the country than spend more time worrying about the Jones litigation. The case would have to go ahead without him, but there would be no more lawyers, no more affidavits, no more depositions. Ms. Jones could say whatever ,, she wants, but the president wouldn't have to reply.
The only consequence of his abstention would be a judgment for the plaintiff, meaning that the trial judge would proceed to hold a hearing limited solely to the issue of Ms. Jones' damages. She could testify in support of monetary claims, but there would be no testimony by Mr. Clinton and no cross-examination.
A jury would decide how much money was necessary to compensate the plaintiff, but the jury could not order an apology; indeed, it would not even be asked to decide whether Ms. Jones was telling the truth.
A win-win strategy
This is a no-lose strategy for Mr. Clinton. At the very worst, the court might award Ms. Jones a high judgment that Mr. Clinton would have to pay, but that would be offset by the small fortune he would no doubt save in legal fees. In any event, it is likely that any jury award to Ms. Jones would be modest -- by her own account she quickly rebuffed Mr. Clinton's alleged proposition, and she was never fired or demoted. In the event of exorbitant damages, a defense fund could be established to defray the cost. After all, we know Mr. Clinton can raise money.
A default would also end the threats of perjury prosecution, taking that potent weapon out of special prosecutors Kenneth W. Starr's arsenal. Once Ms. Jones won by default, any evidence fTC of an alleged Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair would become technically immaterial to the Jones case. And immaterial statements cannot legally be the basis of a perjury charge.
The demise of the Jones case could surely work to Mr. Clinton's political advantage. The public doesn't seem to care much about his priapic urges; it's the forced denials that could hurt him. So paying money to end the suit would have to be less damaging than continuing the spectacle of the lawyers' endless thrusts and parries.
No admission of guilt
Besides, even after defaulting, Mr. Clinton could continue to insist that he did nothing wrong. A default judgment is not an admission of guilt. And he could certainly justify his action as a decision to spare the presidency the continued indignity of being subjected to wired informers, immunized testimony and coerced betrayal.
In the hands of a masterful politician, the default judgment might soon be portrayed as the high road -- a noble financial sacrifice for the sake of safeguarding the independence of the presidential office.
Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor, writes from Chicago.
Pub Date: 2/04/98