A federal judge on Friday rejected President Clinton’s request to dismiss the sexual harassment claim against him and ruled the civil court case would go to trial next May.
Unless the lawsuit brought in 1994 by Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, is settled before the May 26 opening date, Clinton will become the first sitting president to face a trial involving accusations about his personal conduct.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, while turning down White House efforts to have the case thrown out, dismissed two minor elements of Jones’ complaint - that Clinton had defamed her and that she had been denied her right to have a state job. The judge noted that Jones later voluntarily quit her job to move to California with her husband.
Clinton’s attorney, Robert S. Bennett, told Wright he would prefer a trial by next January but was content with the May date. “We want to get this over with as quickly as we can,” he said.
Gilbert K. Davis, one of Jones’ lawyers, agreed. “We’re grateful that this case is proceeding,” he said.
Jones, who flew in from Southern California to attend the hearing, told reporters, “I’m glad to be back in Arkansas and happy it’s going to proceed.”
Asked outside court if a settlement in the politically embarrassing case was possible, Bennett said it could not involve an apology, as insisted upon by Jones’ attorneys, because the president had not done anything improper.
Bennett said a payment could be made by Clinton if it went to charity “and could not reasonably be interpreted as an admission of wrongdoing.” Davis declined to make any response.
The hearing was the first since May when the Supreme Court unanimously refused to grant Clinton immunity from trial because of his high office. And Wright seemed determined to move the case along.
She said both sides would have until Jan. 30 to interview potential witnesses and seek additional documentary evidence, but she declined for the moment to place limits on the scope of pretrial discovery by Jones’ lawyers as the White House had requested.
Bennett, objecting to efforts by Jones’ legal team to explore allegations of extramarital affairs by Clinton as governor, had argued in court papers earlier this month that such evidence gathering was overly broad and invasive of the privacy of individuals unconnected to the case.
Wright said she might deal with such a dispute later.
Jones’ lawsuit, which she filed on May 6, 1994, seeks $700,000 in damages from Clinton on grounds that he made unwanted sexual advances to her on May 8, 1991, while she was a state employee and he was Arkansas governor. She alleged that after a state trooper escorted her to Clinton’s hotel suite during a state economic conference, Clinton exposed himself and asked her to perform an oral sex act that she says she refused.
Clinton “adamantly denies” the allegation, according to his court papers.
Wright left open the possibility of throwing out the case prior to trial if further pretrial investigation by attorneys showed it lacked a firm legal or factual basis. But for now, the judge said it will proceed because Jones’ claims “are sufficient to state an actionable claim” under the law.