520 U.S. 681 (1997), argued 13 Jan. 1997, decided 27 May 1997 by vote of 9 to o; Stevens for the Court. The case involved the question of whether President Bill Clinton could delay proceedings in a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Corbin Jones, an employee of the state of Arkansas while Clinton was governor. Jones had complained that in 1991 Governor Clinton had requested that she come to his hotel room in Little Rock, where he allegedly displayed his private parts to her. Her suit, which sought $700,000 in damages, claimed that Mr. Clinton used the powers of his office to violate her civil rights. President Clinton's attorneys argued that the case should not be heard until after his term as president had ended, since the suit would disrupt the performance of his duties as chief executive. The high court, moreover, in Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), had held that a president has absolute immunity from civil lawsuits over actions taken in his official capacity.
Justice John Paul Stevens's sober opinion dismissed the Fitzgerald precedent since the conduct in question was unofficial rather than official. Stevens concluded, moreover, that Ms. Jones had a right to an orderly disposition of her case. While the Court recognized that great respect was due to the office of the president, that office did not confer any special privilege on the chief executive to be free from civil proceedings. Stevens noted that the decision by Federal District Judge Susan Weber Wright, of Arkansas, to delay the trial in 1994 was an abuse of judicial discretion that took no account of Paula Jones's interests in proceeding with the case. The unanimous Court also rejected Clinton's argument that the unique responsibilities of the president and the concept of separation of powers limited the federal courts from interfering with the executive branch.
Only three other presidents have been the subject of civil lawsuits involving incidents before they took office. Suits against Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman were dismissed; John F. Kennedy settled a suit involving a car accident during his 1960 campaign.
Kermit L. Hall