Lawsuits against the President can wait

President Clinton’s friends and business associates, James and Susan McDougal and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, were found guilty Tuesday on 24 of 30 Whitewater charges. The convictions raised further questions of the Clintons’ role in Whitewater, and provoked further discussion of whether a sitting president should be required to appear in court.
In court papers filed last week, Clinton’s attorney Robert Bennett referred briefly to a military code that protects active military personnel from having to defend themselves in court against civil lawsuits while on active duty. The one-line citation created Memorial Day campaign fodder for presidential candidate Bob Dole, and opened election wounds about the president’s lack of military service that had been closed since 1992.
After the fallout, Bennett admitted to filing a new request because of the political reactions sparked by the military reference. Bennett again asked the Supreme Court to delay the civil suit filed against Clinton — this time because of his role as president, not as commander in chief.
Omitted from the second brief was a reference to the 1940 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act. It suggested Clinton’s role as commander in chief classified him as an active member of the military, allowing him to delay the suit until he was out of office. If privates in the Air Force, for example, are afforded the right to postpone civil lawsuits until after their service to the country is over, the argument followed, it is likely the president should have the same privilege.
But members of Congress, veterans groups and most of the media overreacted to the reference to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act. Five medal-of-honor winners attacked the president in a full-page Washington Times advertisement by saying, “To retreat from the call to arms and then later embrace its code when it is convenient is an outrage to all who served.”
The popular perception of Clinton as a draft-dodger clouded the minds of his naysayers. Regardless of the relief act, and regardless of Clinton’s service record, a civil lawsuit filed against the president should be postponed. The integrity of the White House and the stature of the presidency merits a degree of flexibility. Clinton has only requested a delay, not a dismissal, of the lawsuit.
The office of the president should be protected. More and more frivolous civil lawsuits are appearing every day. Imagine the president of the United States in court defending himself on a breach-of-contract suit because of an unfulfilled campaign promise. That can’t happen: if a sitting president — be it Clinton or whoever — is the subject of a lawsuit, the justice system can wait.
Paula Jones charged then-Governor Clinton with sexually harassing her when she was an Arkansas state employee. We do not downplay or dismiss the charges she has made; Jones is fully within her rights to accuse anyone, the former governor of Arkansas and president included, if she feels she has been sexually harassed. However, the president should be allowed to delay civil suits while in office for the good of the nation — whether he is on active military duty or not.