Braxton Hill


On May 6, 1994, Paula Corbin Jones set in motion events that could alter the legal status of the office of the President of the United States. Ms. Jones filed a lawsuit against William Jefferson Clinton, the sitting President, because of sexual improprieties he allegedly committed while serving as Governor of Arkansas. As of January 1996, the case had already worked its way up the judicial ladder from the trial court to the first appellate level. Jones v. Clinton is poised to come before the United States Supreme Court, which could address unexplored areas of presidential jurisprudence--the body of legal theory and doctrine that deals with the Chief Executive. The suit itself has not yet been tried. No jury has been impanelled, and no attorney has placed the President on the witness stand. Currently, the courts are wrangling over procedural matters rather than substantive ones. Nevertheless, the particular procedural issue in this case is important in its own right: whether a sitting president may be sued for acts committed before he assumed office. The watershed case in this area of "presidential immunity" is Nixon v. Fitzgerald, in which the Supreme Court decided that President Richard Nixon was not subject to lawsuits over matters connected with the execution of the duties of his office. This paper examines the interaction of the Fitzgerald decision, the presidential immunity issue as raised in Jones v. Clinton, and the judicial philosophy of the current Supreme Court. As the twenty-first century approaches, Ms. Jones' suit will have an impact on the Office of the President that will no doubt reverberate throughout both the legal and political worlds.