Clinton's Ark. woes could revive Effect: The president might face contempt of court charges and a renewed Paula Corbin Jones case.

Sun Journal

September 04, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-misconduct lawsuit, a sideline diversion for President Clinton as his other legal woes deepened in recent months, may be about to take on a new and trouble-causing life at center stage.

Instead of receding further into the background while an appeal by Jones goes forward quietly, her case could soon produce a constitutional battle as important as the one that took the case to the Supreme Court once before. Looming is a threat, which some lawyers say is not an idle one, that the president could be cited by a judge for contempt of court and face potentially serious sanctions.

In the worst-case prospect from Clinton's point of view, Jones' entire lawsuit -- dismissed in April -- might be revived and could head toward an embarrassing trial in Little Rock, Ark.

A number of hurdles must be cleared before that point would be reached, notes Ira Robbins, an American University law professor who is a specialist on court procedures. He thinks the prospect of ultimate revival of the case has "only the remotest chance."

More work for defense team

In the meantime, the Clinton team could be pulled back into the Jones case, spreading thinner the resources directed toward independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's criminal investigation and a potential impeachment inquiry in Congress.

It is not out of the question that the case could return to the Supreme Court. Last year, the court ruled that the Jones case could proceed while the president remained in office. Had the court blocked the case, there would have been no basis for Starr's inquiry into the most serious charges that Clinton may face: perjury or obstruction of justice by his conduct during the Jones lawsuit.

It was in the Jones case that Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky emerged as a legal problem, and it was his denial of that relationship (a denial he has since said was misleading) in a Jones-case deposition in January that is behind the new threat of a contempt citation.

Opportunity for Jones

Contempt proceedings against the president in the Jones case, separate from Starr's inquiry, could add a layer of legal threat for Clinton, in court and in Congress.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock, in a ruling Tuesday dealing with post-dismissal issues in the Jones case, volunteered thoughts about the president's having changed his story since January. She noted his "public admission" Aug. 17 that his denials of sexual relations with Lewinsky had been misleading.

Then, in a provocative footnote, Wright declared:

"Although the court has concerns about the nature of the president's January 17th, 1998 deposition testimony given his recent public statements, the court makes no findings at this time regarding whether the president may be in contempt."

It is not clear what the judge meant by "at this time." To some attorneys, the footnote read like an invitation -- for Jones' lawyers, most likely -- to raise the contempt issue in a formal motion. One lawyer who read it that way is Joseph Cammarata, a Washington attorney who formerly represented Jones in her lawsuit.

"She seemed to be inviting a motion," Cammarata says of Wright. She would have little choice but to act if a formal demand for action against Clinton were put before her, he and others say.

Jones' current lead attorney, Donovan Campbell Jr., said this week that his side "is not going to telegraph our punches." But he noted that Jones' lawyers have said "consistently" that they would "examine all legal avenues" in the wake of Clinton's admission last month that his testimony was misleading. A contempt plea remains an option.

Fuel for legal argument

Her attorneys may begin pursuing those options within the next few weeks, it is understood.

Pursuing the contempt issue would fit Jones' attorneys' argument that Clinton and his lawyers tainted the entire Jones lawsuit with fabricated evidence and have disrupted it by concealing evidence. They think Clinton's Aug. 17 admissions about Lewinsky are further proof of that and would justify a sanction against him in the case.

If the contempt issue moves ahead, here is how several legal observers say it would unfold:

Constitutional confrontation

The judge would receive a formal motion of contempt, or decide to proceed on her own, and would then order Clinton's attorneys to "show cause" why he should not be held in contempt of court for giving admittedly misleading testimony.

That could trigger an effort by the president's lawyers, before Wright or in a court of appeals, to stop the contempt proceeding, on the theory that a sitting president cannot be held in contempt. That would set off a constitutional confrontation: courts vs. the president.

Clinton's lawyers would be likely to argue that the Jones case and the Lewinsky matters are unrelated, so that what the president said in the Jones deposition about Lewinsky would have no bearing on Jones' claims of sexual misconduct by Clinton.

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