The Clinton camp's public response to Paula Jones' sexual-harassment suit has been what could be called the "big-hair defense"--jokes about her working-class origins and bravado that this evangelist's daughter from Lonoke, Arkansas, could not possibly win a "he said, she said" dispute with the President of the United States. Former Clinton adviser James Carville wisecracked that if you "drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there's no telling what you'll find." Clinton lawyer Bob Bennett has dismissed the suit as "tabloid trash with a legal caption on it" and once boasted that in a trial he could win the case in 20 minutes.
But quietly, in the legal arena, Clinton has pinned his hopes on a more cautious strategy: asserting that the Constitution protects sitting Presidents from having to answer civil lawsuits. Clinton v. Jones, which is being argued in the Supreme Court this week, promises to be the most important "presidential privilege" case since the court ordered Nixon to hand over the Watergate tapes, despite his claims of confidentiality, because they were needed for a criminal prosecution. And it is shaping up to be a virtual must-win legal battle for Clinton, who is asking the Supreme Court to move beyond existing precedents--the court has as yet never decided whether a President can be sued for actions taken before he took office--to protect him from what could be the most embarrassing controversy of his presidency.
Jones' road to the Supreme Court has been a rocky one. Her well-known claim is that Clinton saw her working at a Governor's Quality Management Conference in Little Rock five years ago, sent a state trooper to bring her to his hotel room and ended up pulling down his pants and asking her to "kiss it." From the day she went public with her allegations, Jones has been dogged by trouble, from a brother-in-law who went on television to doubt her (he now says he believes her) to old photos of her that were published in Penthouse. And by making an appearance on Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show, and another with the Conservative Political Action Conference, Jones fueled suspicions that her suit was politically motivated.
But recently Jones' claims have been receiving a more respectful hearing. Stuart Taylor, a former New York Times reporter who now works for the American Lawyer, has become Jones' most prominent champion, arguing that hers is a strong case of sexual harassment. Taylor notes, for example, that there is solid corroborating evidence: that within a day of the alleged encounter, Jones told two friends and two sisters what happened and that her story has remained consistent. And after some investigation, Taylor found that she was fundamentally apolitical and didn't consort with Clinton enemies until after she failed to be taken seriously.
The issue before the Supreme Court this week, however, is not the substance of Jones' suit but whether it should go forward now. The court has previously recognized the principle of immunity for official presidential acts, but it has never extended the doctrine to acts that occurred before a President took office. Clinton, who has denied Jones' allegations and said he has no recollection of ever meeting her, is asking the court to hold that presidential immunity requires that Jones' lawsuit wait until he leaves office.