The United States Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the president is not immune from civil and criminal lawsuits, opening up the possibility that President Bill Clinton could go to trial.
The Court’s unanimous ruling means Clinton will face a $700,000 civil lawsuit by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones for sexual harassment. Jones alleges that Clinton invited her to his hotel room in 1991, where she said he kissed her, dropped his pants and asked for sexual favors. Clinton denies all of Jones’ allegations.
According to the Court’s opinion, presidents are not exempt under the U.S. Constitution from any legal action. Clinton had argued that he was exempt until he left office.
University law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen said the Court made the right decision.
“Nothing in the Constitution gives the president the immunity to answer to the law,” he said.
Paulsen said the ruling was the most emphatic rejection of presidential privilege since 1974, when President Richard Nixon was ordered to turn over tapes of conversations.
Paulsen added, however, that presidents’ busy schedules could be a factor in future lawsuits.
“The Supreme Court was careful to warn lower-court judges to take into consideration the importance of the president’s need to control his own calendar and not be diverted by lawsuits,” Paulsen said.
But some believe the Court’s decision was unwise. Former College Republican chairman Marc Richards said the decision can undermine the presidency, regardless of which party is in power.
“It opens up a can of worms that maybe shouldn’t be opened,” Richards said. “It sets a bad precedent. Future presidents can be sued for anything during their presidency.”
President Clinton probably will settle the lawsuit out of court before a trial begins to avoid embarrassing publicity, Paulsen said.
“The last thing Bill Clinton wants is a series of depositions by state troopers … about what happened in that hotel room,” he said.
Even if Clinton goes to trial, the hearing probably would not occur until after he leaves office in 2001 because of the slow court system, he added.
— News services contributed to this report.