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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Justices Grill Lawyers On President's Status

WASHINGTON -- With inauguration festivities kicking off this weekend, U.S. President Bill Clinton's personal lawyer appeared before the Supreme Court on Monday in an effort to stave off embarrassing litigation that could tarnish the Democratic administration's second term.


Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-harassment lawsuit against Clinton should be delayed until after he leaves office in 2001 so as not to interfere with official duties, Robert Bennett told the nine justices. "We'll give Ms. Jones her day in court, but let's not do it now," he said.


"The public interest in a president's unimpaired performance of his duties must take precedence over a private litigant's desire for redress," said acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, who represented the United States and also argued in support of Clinton.


But the justices sharply questioned the lawyers for an hour over whether there should be a clear-cut rule immunizing sitting presidents from civil litigation.


The court also showed little patience or understanding for the muddled responses of Jones' attorney Gilbert Davis, who argued that the president has the same responsibilities as other Americans, including the duty to answer a lawsuit. "I am just totally confused now," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, one of the most aggressive questioners, snapped at Davis.


Justices said Davis seemed to undercut his own position by allowing that presidents might be excused from civil trials if they show a court that the demands of their office make it impossible to stand trial. A sitting president might be immune if there is "actual imminent interference with his job," Davis said.


Justice Anthony Kennedy jumped in and attacked Davis at one point for the inconsistency of his rhetoric and logic. The loss of power the executive branch would experience if a federal or state judge was authorized to say when a president must appear in court "strongly" supports the argument that the president should be free from civil litigation while serving in office, Kennedy said.


Bennett, the usually loquacious Washington lawyer, was closed-mouthed, saying only that "this is the time to be circumspect."


In court, Bennett argued that not only would a civil trial cut into a president's time, it would also upset the delicate balance of power between the judicial and executive branches. Ultimately, federal or state judges should not be able to tell presidents what to do or set their schedule as part of a civil proceeding, Bennett said.


Several times Monday Justice Antonin Scalia expressed concern that a trial judge should not be allowed to control a president's schedule. But Scalia also dismissed Bennett's argument that "unless there are exceptional circumstances" presidents should not face civil trials because it would take up too much of their time.


"We see presidents riding horseback, chopping firewood ... and so forth ... The notion that he doesn't have a minute to spare is not credible," Scalia said, quipping later that by invoking the time-constraint argument a president would "never be seen playing golf for the rest of his administration."


Jones says that while she was a low-level state employee, then-Arkansas Governor Clinton sexually harassed and assaulted her and violated her civil rights by exposing himself and asking for oral sex in a room at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel during the afternoon of May 8, 1991. Clinton's attorneys denied the incident.


Clinton appealed the case to the Supreme Court after losing in lower courts, which ruled he must stand trial while in office. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by July on when the trial will proceed.


?President Clinton's budget will propose a spending cap for the first time for Medicaid, the massive federal-state program that helps pay medical bills for 38 million poor Americans, officials said Monday.


The president's proposal would limit the growth in spending for Medicaid to the growth rate of the gross domestic product, the nation's total output of goods and services.


The Medicaid spending restrictions, to be part of the overall budget for fiscal 1998 that Clinton will unveil in early February, can be expected to draw criticism from many members of the Democratic Party in Congress who are strong supporters of this key entitlement program for the poor.