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THE PAULA JONES CASE

Judge Throws Out Jones' Suit : Ruling Says It Fails to Show Harassment by Clinton

Courts: President is 'vindicated' by major legal victory that heads off trial, White House says. Lawyers for former Arkansas state employee plan immediate appeal, they say.

April 02, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A federal judge threw out Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton on Wednesday, citing a lack of substantive proof that Jones was sexually assaulted or harassed in her job--a ruling the White House hailed as "vindication" for Clinton.

Jones' attorneys quickly announced their intention to file an appeal. The decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright did not conclude whether Clinton had made an improper sexual advance toward Jones.

Still, Wright's ruling was a major legal victory for the president and aids his efforts to fend off a portrayal as a sexual predator who intimidates women.

Clinton, in Dakar, Senegal, wrapping up a 12-day tour of Africa, learned of the ruling in a telephone call from his private attorney in Washington. Stunned but pleased, he at first thought the call was an April Fools' joke.

Clinton was on his way to dinner when the call came from Bennett. As the news swept through his hotel, the sound of cheers and laughter could be heard from some of his staff members.

Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters late in the night that Clinton "believes that the court's ruling speaks more eloquently than he could."

In Dallas, where Jones' lawsuit is being managed out of a local law firm, attorneys huddled into the night to decide how best to revive a case that many thought Clinton would win at trial but few expected to be dismissed before it even got to a jury.

The heart of the case--that then-Gov. Clinton allegedly made a crude sexual advance to Jones in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room in 1991 and then used his position to undermine her job as a low-level state employee--was rejected at nearly every turn by Wright in her 40-page order.

"While the alleged incident in the hotel, if true, was certainly boorish and offensive," the judge wrote, "the court has found that the governor's alleged conduct does not constitute sexual assault.

"This is thus not one of those exceptional cases in which a single incident of sexual harassment, such as an assault, was deemed sufficient to state a claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment."

Wright said Clinton's alleged behavior in the episode--rubbing Jones' legs, exposing his genitals and asking her to "kiss it"--was not frequent or physically threatening.

She said Jones' description of being escorted to a hotel room was nothing more than a "mere sexual proposition or encounter, albeit an odious one." There were no threats or coercion, and the episode ended when Jones rejected the alleged advance.

Wright dashed the hopes of Jones' lawyers to show that other women also were harassed by Clinton, establishing a pattern of misconduct by him both as governor and president.

Whatever may have happened to other women "does not change the fact that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury," Wright said.

The stunning news that the May 27 trial was being scrapped sent waves of disbelief rippling out of the federal courthouse in Little Rock.

In the Long Beach apartment where Jones now lives with her husband and two children, the mood was one of shock. "She was very, very upset," said one of her lawyers, T. Wesley Holmes. "We explained to her what the ruling was and she said she couldn't believe it was happening." Jones stayed inside and declined to discuss the matter publicly.

In Long Beach, her volunteer spokeswoman, Susan Carpenter McMillan, reminded reporters that the Jones legal team already had gone to the Supreme Court once to appeal an adverse ruling and would do so again.

"I'd be less than honest if I didn't tell you I'd been completely blown away by this decision," she said. "I think Judge Wright made a wrong decision, but in all due respect, it hasn't been the first time she made a wrong decision in this case."

However, the appeals process could take months or years--perhaps forestalling any trial until near the end of Clinton's term in January 2001 or beyond.

In the Charlottesville, Va., home of the conservative Rutherford Institute, which has been paying Jones' legal fees, officials promised to move swiftly to get their case back on track.

"We will appeal this decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals immediately," said institute president John Whitehead.

He said his organization has put $300,000 into the case since taking over the finances recently as it headed to trial. And he added sternly: "This decision does not vindicate or exonerate the president."

In Washington, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr discounted any effect from the ruling on his criminal investigation into perjury allegations involving Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. He said his investigation will continue, with an aim of finishing it "as expeditiously as possible."

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