Save the lawsuit against the President until he's 'Bill Clinton'

by Jim Brennan | 6/30/94 5:00am

On Monday, President Bill Clinton brought about some major changes in his presidential staff. Not his legal staff but, instead, in the actual close advisors of his presidency. It's very unfortunate that this distinction must be made because for the first time in the modern presidency, a sitting U.S. president has been sued.

The sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who claims that Governor Clinton exposed himself to her in the process of asking for sexual favors, has created a host of ethical, constitutional and legal problems. The foremost of which is "Can the President of the United States be sued while in office?"

The answer clearly should be no.

Clinton, the man, may be guilty of sexually harassing Paula Jones -- and if he is, he should face justice in a court of law. Yet in 1994, Clinton is not merely a private citizen -- he is the President of the United States and faces a daunting array of decisions and actions that will shape the economy, security and foreign policy of our nation. To allow a civil lawsuit to be heard against the president of the United States during that president's tenure is to weaken the status of the presidency itself.

It is not merely a lawsuit against President Clinton, but it is also a lawsuit against the institution of the presidency.

For a lawsuit filed against a sitting president requires that presidential administration to assemble a legal defense team -- a new group of advisors that counsel the president on personal legal matters and remove the focus of that American leader from the national problems that he/she should be concentrating upon. Time spent by a presidential administration planning for and defending civil suits in court is time lost fulfilling the requirements of the presidency. Those requirements are to lead the nation and not a personal defense.

The precedent set by one lawsuit that reaches trial against a sitting president is very serious. It could, in fact, encourage a flood of lawsuits by any citizen with a particular political or personal agenda in an effort to threaten the very sanctity of the U.S. presidency for their own political or economic gain. It is almost absurd to think of the chaos that would ensue from a rash of civil lawsuits filed against the president of the United States. While the viewership of Court TV would surely go up, the effectiveness of the U.S. government would just as surely go down.

In President Clinton's case, he has already been forced to assemble a very expensive legal team to study the lawsuit filed against him. His attorney, Robert Bennett, and White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler head the team that has been organized to defend the President. The large legal bills that will undoubtedly result from the lawsuit have forced the President to initiate a legal defense fund -- a distracting action that no sitting U.S. president in history has ever had to take.

It can only be assumed that the legal actions planned and taken to defend the President before his lawsuit has even reached trial have affected the ability of Clinton to concentrate wholly on matters of state. At home and abroad, the efficacy and reputation of the presidency have been deeply undermined. In foreign capitals, how can other world leaders be expected to have respect for the presidency or the foreign policy of the United States when our nation's leader is involved in a civil lawsuit? For these reasons alone, no sitting President should be sued.

The case of Jones is very special. It deals with the issue of sexual harassment that, while important to all Americans, is especially important to women.

I do not wish to argue here that Clinton should never end up responsible for his actions if he is indeed guilty. Instead, this civil lawsuit can and should be postponed until the end of President Clinton's tenure in office.

In Nov. 1996, Clinton will be judged in the court of public opinion. If he loses there, only then should Clinton be judged by the federal court in Arkansas.

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