Jones V. Clinton: A Study in Politically Motivated Suits, Rule 11, and the First Amendment

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Yes, too much ink already has been spent discussing Paula Jones's sexual harassment case against then-President Bill Clinton. However, precisely because the case is so well known, it is a good case to study the conflict between Rule 11 and the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. While political pundits, legal scholars, and the general public will never agree on the merits of the case, they cannot dispute that the case of Jones v. Clinton was (and remains) politically charged. Indeed, most observers would agree that at least some of the persons behind the suit-whether Paula Jones, her lawyers, or her financial backers-had political or other aims in bringing suit that were in addition to, or even in lieu of, obtaining relief for Ms. Jones's alleged injuries. For this reason, Jones v. Clinton is a nearly perfect case for assessing the tension between Rule 11 (b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which bars plaintiffs from bringing civil suit for "any improper purpose,"1 and the Petition Clause,

which guarantees persons the right to petition courts for redress of grievances.2

In this article, I examine whether application of Rule 11(b)(1) to Paula Jones's suit, to dismiss her claim or otherwise sanction Ms. Jones or her lawyers, would have violated her right of court access under the Petition Clause.3 The question is hypothetical, for the parties in the actual case never pressed the issue of whether Ms. Jones's filing of her suit violated Rule 11(b)(1), let alone whether such an application of the rule would offend the First Amendment. Yet, the question is not so speculative that it strains reality. The possibility of Rule 11(b)(1) sanctions was suggested by both the United States Supreme Court4 and Judge Susan Webber Wright, the District Court

judge presiding over the Jones case.5 President Clinton echoed this theme when, in a nationally televised address, he attempted to justify his deposition testimony in the Jones case by arguing that the lawsuit had been "politically inspired."6 The President's plea to the American people was ironic, for if Ms. Jones in fact had improper motives in bringing suit, he could have at least attempted to rid himself of the case through use of Rule 11(b)(1). Under this strategy, President Clinton might have avoided all discovery in the case, and Ms. Jones,

not the President, would have been the subject of a sanctions inquiry.

In assessing the potential use of Rule 11(b)(1) sanctions in the Jones case, I assume that at least some of Ms. Jones's underlying claims7 had sufficient legal and factual bases to meet the "merit" standards of Rule 11(b)(2) and (b)(3).8 I acknowledge that this assumption is subject to debate, but it is not far-fetched given the low threshold of merit required by Rule 11(b). To be sure, if Ms. Jones falsely stated facts in her complaint, she violated the factual merit standard of Rule 11(b)(3). But the true facts surrounding the incident in the hotel may never be known to us since it is essentially a "he said, she said" conflict. Assuming Ms. Jones's version of the hotel incident to be true, many would argue that her claims had some merit.9 The district court ultimately granted summary judgment

against her because Ms. Jones did not have sufficient evidence of a legally cognizable injury,10 but the court earlier held that most of her claims had enough legal merit to withstand a motion to dismiss.11 Failure to survive summary judgment alone does not render a complaint so factually insufficient that it violates Rule 11 (b)(3).12 In any event, I do not purport to argue the merits of her claims here. Instead, I assume sufficient merit to satisfy the other prongs of Rule 11(b) so that the improper purpose clause of Rule 11(b)(1) is squarely at issue.

The propriety of Rule 11(b)(1) improper purpose sanctions in the Jones case raises issues on two levels. The first is procedural and looks solely at the potential application of Rule 11, without considering any constitutional constraints. …