Clinton v. Jones

The U.S. Supreme Court case Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997) had the immediate impact of allowing a civil suit filed against President Bill Clinton to proceed while he was in office. In fact, although the case arose from an alleged incident that occurred before Clinton assumed the presidency, his status as president was central to the arguments the Supreme Court had to address. Ultimately, the decision’s more far-reaching impact directly affected the presidency on multiple levels. First, the Court’s ruling both reinforced and extended the idea that the president is not above the law, a concept that had been at the heart of the legal issues surrounding the Watergate affair. In addition, statements made by Clinton in the deposition for the civil suit ultimately proved central to the impeachment of Clinton by the House of Representatives.

The case had its roots in a suit filed on May 6, 1994, by Paula Jones, who had worked as a document examiner with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission). The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock (Pulaski County) just days before the three-year statute of limitations for such a claim would have expired, sought $700,000 in damages from Clinton for “willful, outrageous, and malicious conduct” that had allegedly occurred at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, when Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Basing her claim in an allegation of sexual harassment, Jones said that Clinton had invited her to his hotel room during an economic conference at which she was working as a receptionist and then solicited sex from her, a request she refused.

Clinton denied the allegations, but as it arose in the second year of his presidency, the case set off a flurry of legal maneuvering, with Clinton seeking, at the very least, to delay the case until the end of his presidency, arguing that addressing the matter would interfere with his ability to carry out his responsibilities as president. In response, Jones demanded her rights as a citizen, arguing that Clinton’s status as president did not put him above the law. Clinton and his attorneys countered Jones’s suit by filing a motion on August 10, 1994, seeking dismissal of the case. In response, on December 28, 1994, U.S. District Court judge Susan Webber ruled that while the trial could not take place until after Clinton left office, fact-finding procedures could go forward. Less than a month later, on January 17, 1995, Jones asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Missouri, to reverse the decision postponing the trial. This action led the judge on February 24, 1995, to delay the fact-finding process pending the Appeals Court’s ruling on Jones’s request. On September 14, 1995, a three-judge panel heard Clinton’s lawyers assert that allowing the case to proceed while he was in office would distract the president from the more important matters central to the presidency. In response, Jones’s attorneys reiterated their argument that she deserved the same rights as anyone else. On January 9, 1996, by a 2–1 vote, the Appeals Court panel ruled that the suit could go to trial. On May 15, 1996, with his campaign for reelection well under way, Clinton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to delay the case until after he left office. On June 24, 1996, with the Court’s term winding down, the justices agreed to consider whether the case should be delayed until Clinton left office, a ruling that left things unsettled until after the election.

On November 5, 1996, Clinton won reelection to a second term, defeating the Republican nominee, former U.S. senator Bob Dole, a result that raised the possibility of delaying Jones’s suit for four additional years. Thus, on January 13, 1997, as preparations for Clinton’s second inauguration were being made, lawyers representing both the president and his accuser appeared before the Court—headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist—to argue their cases. Rehnquist would administer the oath of office to Clinton a little more than a week later.

The central issues were clear. The president and his lawyers asserted that the demands inherent in defending himself in such a suit would infringe upon his ability to perform his responsibilities as president. They argued that Clinton was not asking that a different standard be applied to the president, nor that the president was above the law, but only that his duties and responsibilities were so significant that it would adversely affect the national interest if he were to be forced to devote time and attention to defend himself against Jones’s suit. They also argued that the involvement of the federal courts in the matter represented a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Meanwhile, as they had from the beginning, Jones’s attorneys argued that his status as president should not prevent Jones from having her grievances addressed in the timely fashion guaranteed to all citizens.

On May 27, 1997, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit could move ahead. In the opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court rejected the claim that “‘in all but the most exceptional cases,’ the Constitution affords the president temporary immunity from civil damages litigation arising out of events that occurred before he took office.” Rather, the Court ruled that any such immunity—limited as it was—applied to official acts so as to allow the president to perform his responsibilities without fear of personal liability. Too, the Supreme Court’s ruling specifically addressed and refuted Clinton’s argument that the case would intrude upon his ability to carry out his presidential responsibilities, determining that the president’s own involvement in the case would not be so extensive as to warrant it being held over until after he left office.

Beyond that, the Court also rejected the separation of powers argument, declaring that the ongoing suit would not represent an unconstitutional entanglement between the executive and judicial branches. Finally, the justices rejected the argument that in allowing the case to go forward, they were inviting a large volume of politically motivated litigation that would hamper the president’s ability to do his job.

The historic ruling was generally well received by the press, the public, and the legal community, all of whom supported a ruling that was generally seen as reinforcing the idea that the president is not above the law. Meanwhile, the ruling itself sent the case back to the district court, where another round of legal maneuverings took place before an out-of-court settlement was finally reached in November 1998. Under the terms of the agreement, Clinton paid Jones $850,000, but there was no acknowledgement of any wrongdoing.

Unfortunately for Clinton, the Jones case had played out against the backdrop of a wide-ranging set of investigations that came to be known as the Whitewater Scandal. While no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clinton or his wife was ever proven in the Whitewater case, a number of friends and political allies were caught up in the extended investigation, and while some convictions were obtained, many more reputations were tarnished. For Clinton, the Jones case offered an additional area for investigation, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, special counsel Kenneth W. Starr expanded his investigation seeking to determine if, in light of Jones’s allegations, there might be other cases of infidelity by Clinton. That investigation led to an expansion of the questions asked in the Jones case, and in the course of that proceeding, details about Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky emerged. Amidst a national debate about the nature and definition of sexual relations, Starr delivered his report to Congress, putting forth a number of impeachable offenses, including perjury. By the time of the settlement, however, the concerns about the president’s ability to perform his duties took on a whole different color when impeachment proceedings were initiated by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 1998. While Clinton was acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999, the president and his reputation were damaged, and, with his political capital spent, his status as a lame duck was only reaffirmed.

In the end, the historical significance of Clinton v. Jones, while an important decision (one that reaffirmed the place of the presidency in the legal and constitutional framework of the nation), rests more on the unintended and unforeseen consequences that resulted from the lawsuit it allowed to proceed. In that way, the ruling contributed greatly to the writing of a major chapter in presidential history. Moreover, the case paved the way for lawsuits to be filed against Donald Trump following his 2017 inauguration. Many Republicans who had previously argued against the president’s immunity from lawsuits took the opposite position in their defense of Trump. However, on March 20, 2018, a court ruled that the Clinton v. Jones precedent allowed Summer Zervos to sue Trump for defamation of character.

For additional information:
Bugliosi, Vincent. No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton: The Supreme Court on Trial. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998.

Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681. Cornell University Law School. (accessed November 2, 2021).

Jones v. Clinton Special Report. (accessed November 2, 2021).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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