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
"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
"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
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