Collapsing Starr's momentum Investigation: The Supreme Court's refusal to speed up the independent counsel's probe may lessen the prospect of President Clinton facing impeachment proceedings.

Sun Journal

June 08, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Sun staff

WASHINGTON -- A recent flurry of legal activity in the Supreme Court by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr gained him no ground in his criminal investigation of President Clinton -- and probably cost him some. The court refused to quickly sort out a series of disputes over grand jury testimony, raising questions about where the matter stands. Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston provided these answers.

Why did Starr go to the Supreme Court?

Met by what he considers repeated attempts to "impede" his investigation by legal maneuvering that seeks to block testimony before a grand jury, Starr asked the justices to step in quickly to stop those maneuvers. He wanted the court to rule in a matter of weeks, before the court's summer recess, thus bypassing a federal appeals court that now has the disputes.

What does it mean that the Supreme Court turned Starr down?

First, it means delay in Starr's investigation. Unless he stops demanding the testimony at issue, he could not hope to wind up his inquiry into the White House sex scandal before October.

Second, such a delay puts off any final report he might make to Congress on possible impeachment of Clinton almost certainly until after this fall's elections, when Clinton's fellow Democrats could regain control of the House and thus the impeachment process.

Third, it could lessen the chances of any impeachment proceeding against Clinton, even if Republicans remain in charge.

Fourth, it means that Starr, Clinton and the White House will be fighting out the testimony disputes in the federal appeals court in Washington, with a possible return to the Supreme Court later.

What testimony is involved?

Starr wants to question deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey about discussions he had with the president and with other advisers about possible impeachment, about what legal maneuvers should be used when Starr demands testimony, and about ways to find out what Starr was asking other witnesses before the grand jury. He wants to know if Lindsey and others have been trying to obstruct his investigation.

Starr also sought to question senior White House communications adviser Sidney Blumenthal about what he said to Hillary Rodham Clinton and others about Starr's investigation; he wants to know if Blumenthal was trying to intimidate Starr's prosecutors in order to obstruct their efforts.

In addition, Starr wants to question two Secret Service uniformed officers, who have observed Clinton up close in the White House, to see if they saw or heard anything that would determine whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. That bears upon whether Clinton lied under oath when he denied any such relationship -- which would be a criminal offense -- during the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit. And Starr wants to question a Secret Service lawyer about what the officers told him about their observations.

Is there any dispute about testimony that Starr might want from President Clinton personally?

There is no public indication of such a dispute, although Starr has several times asked the president privately to agree to answer questions and has been refused.

How can the White House prevent Starr and the grand jury from questioning the witnesses they seek?

The president and the White House say that Lindsey was acting as a lawyer in his discussions with Clinton and others, and thus what was said should remain confidential under the generations-old theory that what lawyers and clients say to each other must remain secret to protect that relationship.

The Secret Service says that if agents can be summoned to testify about their observations of the president, the president will push them away and they will not be able to protect his life. That protection, the service says, requires that agents always remain very close to those they protect.

For some weeks, the White House also was claiming that Lindsey, Blumenthal and others should not have to testify about conversations they had within the White House -- with Clinton, among themselves, and with Hillary Clinton -- because a president's "executive privilege" shields communications in the top echelon of the White House. That claim has now been dropped, and the Supreme Court's action last week did not deal with it.

How did the courts react to those "privilege" claims?

U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ruled that Starr could get the testimony he wanted by summoning Lindsey, Blumenthal and the Secret Service officers and attorney before the grand jury. But Starr wanted the Supreme Court to get involved immediately, arguing that only the justices could sort it all out and that his investigation would be slowed if the dispute had to go through lower courts first.

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