- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Last May 27, the fourth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's politically controversial decision in Clinton vs. Jones (1997) denying a presidential immunity from civil suits pivoting on non-official conduct passed unnoticed.

That silence speaks volumes. It corroborates the high court's discrediting of the parade of projected horribles conjured up by President William Jefferson Clinton's advocates if immunity were denied.

The persistent myth peddled by some that Clinton vs. Jones caused President Clinton's independent counsel and impeachment ordeals is fit more for troubadours than for historians.

Paula Jones sued Mr. Clinton in federal district court before Judge Susan Webber Wright on May 6, 1994, asserting various federal and state causes of action. They all spun on Mr. Clinton's alleged sexual harassment of Miss Jones in a hotel room during his Arkansas governorship. Mr. Clinton insisted that neither a trial of the case nor discovery could ensue while he occupied the White House because of an implied constitutional immunity. (In contrast, members of the House and Senate command an express immunity from suit for legislative activity under Article I, section 6).

Writing for a unanimous court in Jones, Justice John Paul Stevens lacerated Mr. Clinton's constitutional defense. The president argued that his schedule was too crowded to accommodate defending against civil litigation.

In other words, an accommodation would necessarily sabotage the discharge of presidential duties and responsibilities. Justice Stevens scoffed. As any commonplace observer knows, presidents routinely squander time on golf courses, fishing, fund-raising appearances, and otherwise that could be clipped if needed to defend an occasional lawsuit based on pre-presidential conduct. And nothing in episodic testimony of presidents in criminal investigations or prosecutions indicated a danger to presidential functions.

Mr. Clinton also forecast a hurricane of politically motivated harassing and frivolous litigation if the Jones suit proceeded. Justice Stevens again voiced incredulity, noting the arsenal of legal sanctions against vexing and mean-spirited lawsuits.

What Mr. Clinton conspicuously declined to argue was telling. He did not even hint he might be "trapped" into apparent perjury or obstruction of justice in the Jones case if compelled to testify under oath.

The Clinton vs. Jones critics have accused the high court of political naivete. But the fourth anniversary proves the detractors deserve that derision. Neither the former president nor any of his intimate lieutenants have suggested that the litigating distraction impaired any presidential decision or function. Moreover, the forecasted flood of Paula Jones copycat suits against either President Clinton or his successor George W. Bush proved as imaginary as the Loch Ness Monster.

Scourges of Clinton vs. Jones have thus resorted to the ill-conceived legal maxim that if the law and facts are against you, confuse the issue. They urge that Monicagate and the nation's impeachment crisis would have been avoided if the Supreme Court had sustained Mr. Clinton's constitutional immunity claim. But think of its monstrous implications: namely, that presidents should enjoy constitutional immunity from a civil lawsuit because their disdain for law and constitutional duties coupled with vaulting ambitions will push them to criminality in attempting to win.

Enlightened law rewards virtue, not villainy. Furthermore, even Mr. Clinton's most ardent defenders in Clinton vs. Jones did not imagine their client would stoop to reprehensible conduct if the suit continued.

It might be said that the precedent was simply the first step of a "right-wing" conspiracy to destroy Mr. Clinton's presidency. But the indictment is counterfactual. The chief legal charges against the president all proved substantial, not frivolous. Thus, he settled the Jones lawsuit for a handsome sum; was impeached by the House of Representatives on two counts, and 50 senators voted to convict on one charge; was held in contempt of court and fined by Judge Wright for intentional lying and attempting to obstruct justice; and, agreed to a suspension of his Arkansas law license and conceded the falsity of some testimony in exchange for the independent counsel's closure of an outstanding criminal investigation.

In sum, Mr. Clinton's misconduct, not the Clinton vs. Jones ruling, brought on his multifront legal wars. No one speaks of a right-wing conspiracy anymore, not even New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

History's vindication of the Supreme Court rejection of President Clinton's immunity claim is not assured. Napoleon quipped that history is largely a fable mutually agreed upon, which his own Jekyll-and-Hyde treatment in the evolution of French history texts substantiates. Ditto for the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Examples are endless. Nothing is more contrary to experience than John Milton's delusion in "Aeropagitica" that truth invariably triumphs over falsehood on an even playing field. Truths must be marketed like commodities to sustain themselves, and Supreme Court decisions are no exception.

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