Another Chat with the Lady in the Grocery Line: Clinton V. Jones

By Mitchell, John B. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Another Chat with the Lady in the Grocery Line: Clinton V. Jones


Mitchell, John B., Constitutional Commentary


I had gone to the grocery store for a few breakfast items, and was standing in the ten-items-or-less line, counting how many items each of the four people ahead of me had in their baskets. My hopes for a quick exit from the grocery store were dashed, however, when it turned out that two people were using debit cards--one who had forgotten her number and a second whose magnetic tape was worn--the third person had an out-of-state check, a basket full of purchases, and fifty-three cents cash, and the fourth had brought a shopping bag full of coupons.

So there I was in the line scanning all the racks of tabloids laden with stories about some newly discovered connection between Elvis and Michael Jackson, and the Clinton-Paula Jones Saga, when the person behind me said, "Hello, Mr. Mitchell." It was a woman whose children had graduated from the same high school as mine, and with whom, in a grocery line such as this one, I'd once gotten into a lengthy discussion about some Supreme Court case.(1) We began talking about our kids and the changes in our lives since they had begun lives of their own, and so the conversation went until she glanced at the tabloids and said, "Wasn't that Jones case(2) where the Supreme Court let a sitting President be sued just terrible? Now we have this whole mess." I knew from prior experience that I should change the subject, feign ignorance, anything--anything but respond in substance. I knew that. I knew that those who did not learn the lessons of history were doomed to repeat them. Yet I began....

Well, I haven't really given it a lot of thought, but the case seems to make sense. After all, it's pretty central to our whole idea of this country that this is a nation of laws and not of men ... or women. We don't accept the Divine Rights of Kings. And personally, I like the idea that no one is above the law, not even the President.

I couldn't agree more, Mr. Mitchell. No person in this country should be above the law. But that really doesn't settle it. That Jones case was about what the law was. Could or couldn't a sitting President be sued? The Supreme Court said yes. I just think they got it wrong and should have said no. I don't think the President is above the law. I think it's the law that keeps him from being sued.

But why shouldn't he be sued? If he hurts someone, he certainly should be as accountable as you or me.

I agree that as a person, the President is just like you or me. But I'm not talking about an individual. I'm talking about the office, the institution, the Presidency.

Go on.

Well, you've got to admit that the President is unique in our government. There's hundreds of legislators and dozens of federal judges, but only one President. One person to do the job....

There is a vice-president if the President can't function.

Vice-President. Are you kidding? People elect a vice-president because they have to put them on the ballot. No one wants them actually to lead the country.

Okay. But the Jones court recognized and acknowledged all the points you are making.

I'm not through yet. They may have talked about those things. I wouldn't know; I only read about the case in the paper. But did they address the reality of the role of the American President in the latter part of the Twentieth Century?

What do you mean?

Well, the President of the United States isn't just a national figure, he's a world figure. After all, think about the role of America in the world. This is the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth, wouldn't you agree?

I guess so.

You know, we were a minor power for much of our history, but now this nation is at the center of the world community. In many ways, it is the world's leader. If you think the world economy is affected by problems in the Asian Markets, imagine the impact of serious economic difficulties in America.

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