President Clinton has good reason to keep a close eye on the Supreme Court these days. Three cases before the justices could have major impacts on his work and his personal life.
The court may decide soon whether to let Paula Jones proceed immediately with her sexual-harassment lawsuit against Clinton.
On Tuesday, the justices will hear arguments on whether to uphold a federal law that would make Clinton the first president empowered to reject specific items from spending bills, the so-called line-item veto.
And the White House is asking the justices to reverse a lower court order giving Whitewater investigators access to government lawyers’ notes from conversations with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The cases are “immensely significant, both personally and otherwise,” said Herman Schwartz, an American University law professor. “Each one raises fundamental questions about the power and role of the presidency.”
The high court is no stranger to major cases involving presidents. Perhaps the biggest was its 1974 ruling that rejected President Nixon’s claim of executive privilege and ordered him to surrender secretly recorded White House tapes. He resigned within weeks.
Of the three cases involving Clinton, Schwartz believes a ruling in the line-item veto dispute could wind up having the greatest long-term impact.
Many presidents have sought line-item veto authority from Congress, but Clinton was the first to get it. Under the law that took effect in January, the president could sign a spending bill, then reject specific parts of it within the ensuing five days.
A federal judge threw out the law in April on the ground that the Constitution bars Congress from shifting such power to the president. The judge said a line-item veto could be adopted only by constitutional amendment, not through law enacted by Congress.
The Clinton administration’s appeal says a line-item veto is a “critical tool” to head off wasteful government spending. Members of Congress who sued to overturn the law said it upset the constitutional balance of power between lawmakers and the president.
By late June, the Supreme Court is expected to announce whether it will hear the White House appeal in the Whitewater case involving the first lady.
The White House wants to avoid turning over its lawyers’ notes from their conversations with Mrs. Clinton on Whitewater-related issues. A federal grand jury in Little Rock, Ark., wants to see the notes, while Clinton’s office argues they are protected by attorney-client privilege.
The White House says the federal appeals court ruling that denied such attorney-client privilege will if allowed to stand harm the president’s ability to obtain sound legal advice.
Federal officials outside the White House may be watching closely too. The lower court’s ruling said a federal official who consults a government lawyer is not entitled to attorney-client privilege in a criminal investigation.
If the justices agree to hear the case, it would hear arguments in the fall and might not issue a decision until mid-1998. But if they deny review, the notes would have to be turned over soon.
Although the Paula Jones case potentially is the most personally embarrassing to the president, Schwartz believes it carries the least legal significance of the three.
The president has denied Jones’ accusation that he propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991 when he was governor of Arkansas.
Jones wants a trial now, while Clinton wants to delay the case until he leaves office in 2001. Presidents are too busy to answer private lawsuits while in office, his lawyer told the justices.
The high court ruled in 1982 that presidents cannot be sued for damages involving their official duties, even after they leave office.