The worst nightmare of the White House may have been averted. But while the delay ordered in Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit spares President Bill Clinton the indignity of being dragged into a public courtroom, the affair is far from having b een laid to rest.
Essentially the decision by Susan Wright, the Arkansas federal judge, is a compromise. Any trial has been put back until after Mr Clinton leaves office, at the latest in 2001, on the grounds it might interfere with the President's ability to do his job. But she is allowing the rest of the judicial process to go ahead, notably the controversial procedure known as "discovery".
This permits both sides to take testimony from witnesses and assemble evidence. For Mr Clinton, this would mean sworn statements to Ms Jones' lawyers, and perhaps a bodily examination to prove or disprove her claims that she could identify certain intimate parts of his anatomy. "It may very well be that we'll ask for this examination," Gilbert Davis, one of Ms Jones' lawyers, said yesterday.
More fundamentally, Judge Wright rejected the notion that a sitting President had absolute immunity from civil actions, whether arising before or during his term. That, she said, was contrary to America's form of government "which asserts . . . that eventhe sovereign is subject to God and the law."
But in the months ahead the arguments will be focus less on lofty principles than abstruse points of law. Mr Clinton's lawyers say they will lodge an appeal to halt the "discovery" stage - an issue which might not be resolved until 1996. …