The impeachment in 1998 of President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, had its roots in an encounter Clinton was alleged to have had with a different woman while he was still governor of Arkansas.
In May 1991 Paula Jones, who was employed by the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, joined other state employees at the third annual Governor's Quality Conference, held in a Little Rock hotel. At some point during the conference, Jones was alerted that Governor Clinton wished to meet with her in one of the hotel's suites. There, Jones alleged, Clinton made a series of unwanted advances toward her, which included exposing himself and urging Jones to “kiss it.”
Jones did not do anything about the incident for nearly three full years. But in May 1994, days before the statute of limitations would expire and bar any legal action, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in federal court against now-President Clinton, and also against the state trooper who escorted her to the hotel suite. This led to a larger institutional question: can the president of the United States be sued in civil court?
To a certain extent this was uncharted legal territory. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731, had immunized former President Richard Nixon from a civil lawsuit over official acts. However, this precedent did not apply to the Jones lawsuit because Clinton's alleged act was not an official act and had purportedly occurred prior to his election to the presidency.
In addition, Clinton was mindful of the political dangers of making a blanket argument that the president could not be hauled into court at all, as this argument sounded too much like those deployed by President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Instead, Clinton opted for the more nuanced position that, though it was possible to file a civil lawsuit against a sitting president, the actual disposition of the case had to wait until the president had left office.
That argument found a receptive audience in Judge Susan Webber Wright of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, to whom the Jones litigation had been assigned by lottery (and who had decades earlier been a student in a class that Clinton had taught at the University of Arkansas School of Law). Wright held that pretrial discovery could begin, in anticipation of the eventual start of the trial, but also ordered that the trial could not start until the end of Clinton's presidency. That delay order, however, was reversed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which likened it to a virtual grant of immunity.
In May 1997, in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with the lower court. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court ruled that Jones's lawsuit could indeed go forward immediately. Stevens based his ruling on two premises. One was that to compel the president to defend himself in a civil suit while president would not be much of an imposition, even granting the unique stresses of his job. Clinton, as the petitioner in the case, had argued that requiring him to defend himself against Jones's accusations would interfere with his ability to discharge the duties of his office. Stevens blithely waved away this concern, writing that Jones's lawsuit was “highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time” (520 U.S. at 702). This would shortly prove to be among the most spectacular miscalculations in Supreme Court history.
The idea that the president goes before the law just like anyone else was an appealing notion, especially after the abuses of Watergate. Yet here, as with the first premise, the Court may have grievously misconstrued political reality.
Running parallel to the Jones lawsuit was an investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr into Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in a 1980s real estate deal gone awry. When Jones's lawyers discovered the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, Starr added it to his investigatory purview, and in the summer of 1998 Starr subpoenaed the president to submit to questioning about the Lewinsky affair before a grand jury. As a concession to the office of the presidency, Clinton was allowed to testify from the White House via closed circuit, but one month later his testimony was broadcast by the major television networks.
In the immediate aftermath of this broadcast, Clinton's approval ratings declined precipitously, and it was clear that viewers objected to seeing the president act in an evasive manner, strain to avoid answering questions, and parse the words of his interrogators. In one notorious example, Clinton responded to one question by saying “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In short, viewers saw the president behaving like a common defendant, and they did not like it.
But if the central notion in Clinton v. Jones was that the president goes before the law like anyone else, this should have meant that he was able to behave like a common defendant without consequences. As several presidency scholars subsequently noted, the Court had evidently cemented an odd double standard for the office: Clinton was forced to defend himself as any ordinary person would have to do, but he was also being forced to look “presidential” while defending himself, a burden no ordinary person would ever have to carry.
Ultimately, Clinton settled the Jones lawsuit before going to trial, agreeing to a payment of $850,000 in November 1998. One month later, he was impeached by the House of Representatives, but neither of the two articles of impeachment garnered even a majority in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote was required for a conviction.
SEE ALSO Article II, United States Constitution ; Impeachment ; Separation of Powers .
Bugliosi, Vincent. No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton—The Supreme Court on Trial. New York: Ballantine, 1998.
Conason, Joe, and Gene Lyons. The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2001.
Cronin, Thomas E., and Michael A. Genovese. The Paradoxes of the American Presidency. 4th ed. Oxford, UK, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Steven B. Lichtman