High court lets stand 2 rulings denying Clinton claims of presidential privilege One dealt with lawyers at White House, the other with Secret Service agents

November 10, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court all but ended a 10-month legal battle between President Clinton and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday by turning aside White House and Secret Service objections to testifying before a grand jury.

The court issued no decisions. But it denied a review of what may be the last remnants of that prolonged fight over the legal "privileges" against having to testify. Only two justices -- half the number needed -- voted to hear the two privilege cases.

By the time the court acted, what was left of the courtroom battles over Starr's investigation of White House sex scandals was a clear verdict, important to history and to future presidential operations, that privacy inside the president's inner circle had been diminished significantly.

Now, with much of the fervor for impeaching Clinton apparently gone in the House, the possibility of further legal conflicts has lessened.

As a result of the court's actions yesterday, Clinton and his aides have met setbacks on all three claims they advanced to shield key advisers and Secret Service guards from being forced to testify about possible crimes involving the president and his closest advisers.

Those were claims of executive secrecy, of attorney-client privacy and Secret Service confidentiality, which had been kept alive until yesterday's Supreme Court orders. Hillary Rodham Clinton lost her own claim of attorney-client privacy last year in conversations with White House lawyers.

Starr appears now to have largely unchecked authority to finish all of his investigations of Clinton, the first lady, and the president's official aides and private confidants.

Starr's office said it was "gratified" by the court's denial of review of the two privilege cases. Once again, the special prosecutor complained that "the administration's continued assertion of these privileges substantially delayed and impeded the grand jury's right to evidence."

Though Starr has reported to Congress about the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, arguing that the president's conduct provided a basis for impeaching him, the prosecutor has said his investigation was continuing. He has made no commitment to Congress about when he will finish.

It was not clear yesterday whether Starr plans to summon again before the grand jury White House aides such as Bruce R. Lindsey, the deputy White House counsel, or Secret Service agents, many of whom have already appeared. But by refusing to shield both groups from further appearances, the Supreme Court reopened that possibility.

The president's lawyers have also indicated that the claims of attorney-client secrecy over his conversations with Lindsey might be asserted in any House impeachment inquiry. But there is no plan now to call Lindsey or other White House aides as witnesses in that proceeding.

The White House expressed disappointment that its legal claims had been left unreviewed by the Supreme Court.

Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, said, "The American people benefit from decisions made by government officials, including the president, on the basis of full and frank information and discussion," which is shielded when attorney-client secrecy applies.

The Supreme Court gave no reason for not hearing the appeal seeking to insulate Lindsey from being forced to relate private conversations he had with Clinton. A federal appeals court largely rejected that claim.

But that court left open the possibility that Lindsey could gain some privacy for conversations he had with Clinton while acting as a go-between for the president and his private outside attorneys.

The appeals court also left open a renewed claim of executive privilege, if Lindsey wished to make it.

The appeals court rejected the president's personal claim of attorney-client secrecy when he discussed legal questions with Lindsey.

Similarly, the court refused to hear a plea for White House Secret Service guards who are seeking immunity from being called to recount their observations of the president in the private confines of the executive mansion.

The Secret Service said it now would ask Congress to create the protection the courts have denied.

Dissenting in both cases were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, Clinton's two Supreme Court appointees.

Implicitly disputing Starr's argument to Congress that Clinton's assertion of legal privileges against testimony was "frivolous" and was among the reasons to impeach him, Ginsburg and Breyer took those claims seriously.

Breyer wrote in defense of the Secret Service's need for secrecy in their protective relationship with the president.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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