Justice Agency Studies Question of Suits against Sitting Presidents

By Ron Fournier Of The | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Justice Agency Studies Question of Suits against Sitting Presidents


Ron Fournier Of The, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


HEEDING A WHITE House request, the Justice Department is studying a question at the core of President Bill Clinton's sexual harassment case: Can he be sued over something that allegedly took place before he was president?

Whatever the conclusion, legal scholars and ethics experts said Wednesday that the White House had ventured in uncharted and murky water by getting government lawyers so involved in the president's defense.

"Clinton is going to benefit from the work of the Justice Department and thereby save some of the costs," said Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics at New York University Law School.

"Nevertheless, I think it is entirely appropriate to ask the department to do that work," he said. "It concerns the immunity of a sitting president, whoever he happens to be."

Other legal minds agreed that the Justice Department needed to answer the question for the sake of future presidents, even it helps the current president settle a private matter. "I think it's a legitimate expense of government," said Yale Law School professor Geoffrey Hazard.

But involving Justice Department lawyers in Clinton's personal legal defense could cause him political problems.

Bill Kristol, head of the Project for a Republican Future and former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle, said the Justice Department review was legally appropriate and necessary. "Politically, I would say, though, that it will be hard for liberals who have said for years, over and over, that the president is not above the law to now maintain a position that the president is above the law," he said.

White House counsel Lloyd Cutler has asked the Justice Department to study whether a sitting president can be sued over activities that allegedly took place before he took office.

Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, alleges that Clinton made a sexual advance when he was governor of Arkansas. The president's private attorney, Robert Bennett, has indicated that he will try to block the lawsuit by arguing that a president should not be distracted while in office by private legal actions.

The issue is not whether Paula Jones can sue; it is when she can sue. Must she wait until Clinton leaves office?

Administration officials insisted the request to the Justice Department was not a conflict of interest, even though its lawyers may be - in effect - doing legal legwork for Clinton's private attorney. …

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