Danger to the presidency

by Staff

Before he was president of the United States, did Bill Clinton sexually harass an Arkansas state employee? Did he order Arkansas state troopers to arrange trysts for him, as some troopers claim?

If Paula Jones has her way, the answer to these questions will come sooner, rather than later. Jones claims then-Gov. Clinton made several advances toward her in 1991, and when she refused, he exposed himself to her. In arguments before the Supreme Court, Jones’ attorneys pressed their case that the president should be held accountable for his actions just like anyone else.

At issue is whether the president of the United States can be sued while he’s in office for misdeeds that occurred before he took office. The Supreme Court has never decided this issue. It has, however, ruled that presidents can not be sued while in office for things they did during their terms. (This case was won by President Nixon after a fired government employee sued and lost.)

Clinton’s lawyers argue that the president is far too busy to handle lawsuits that would consume enormous amounts of time, effort and money. Also, they claim since the president is commander-in-chief as described by the Constitution, he is on active duty and immune from various legal actions. Attorney General Janet Reno agrees: “Considering the tremendous burdens on the presidency, the matter should be delayed until after his service as president.”

Jones’ attorneys believe this is just an excuse to save Clinton from political embarrassment. They point out that the president has time to campaign, go to McDonald’s and golf in Hawaii and Australia.

The Supreme Court’s stance is hard to discern.

During questioning on Jan. 13, Chief Justice William Renquist stated that the president does have free time and that the public routinely sees him chopping firewood or riding horses. But other justices questioned whether this case would open the current or any future president to a flood of lawsuits, ultimately hampering his ability to uphold his constitutional duties.

It is on this point that The Daily Aztec agrees. If the Supreme Court sides with Paula Jones, there will almost certainly be a flood of lawsuits from other individuals who have past gripes with the president. In today’s polarized, big-money political environment, it is easy to imagine members of the opposing parties secretly bankrolling attorneys’ fees for anyone with a claim legitimate or frivolous against the president, thus curtailing his ability to run the country.

Since the president is limited to a maximum of eight years in office, it is not unreasonable for anyone with a grievance to wait until the president leaves office. Then, lawsuit after lawsuit could go forward against the ex-president. But this is unlikely to happen since, having left office, the political incentives to proceed with a particular lawsuit are most often negated by the suit’s extremely high cost.

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