... as US court brings cheer

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AS PRESIDENT Bill Clinton was recovering in Xian from his 18-hour journey to China last night, there was good news from the scandal-front back home when the US Supreme Court delivered a judgment that could benefit him twice over in his tussle with the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr.

The court ruled that the prosecutor may not have access to the lawyers' notes of conversations with the late Vincent Foster, the senior White House aide who committed suicide in 1993. Mr Starr had sought the notes as part of his wide-ranging investigation into the Whitewater affair, which has expanded into a much broader probe of White House ethics.

In a judgment that effectively upholds the status quo, the court said that conversations between a client and his lawyer continue to be privileged even after the client's death. "It has been generally, if not universally, accepted, for well over a century, that the attorney-client privilege survives the death of the client in a case such as this," said Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The reaffirmation of attorney-client privilege also offers Mr Clinton hope that another of his pending appeals connected with the Monica Lewinsky affair - the investigation into whether he had an affair with the White House trainee, lied about it under oath and put pressure on her to lie about it as well - will be resolved in his favour.

Mr Clinton and Mr Starr are currently sparring over whether one of Mr Clinton's friends and lawyers, Bruce Lindsey, should be required to give evidence in the Lewinsky case. Mr Starr argues that Mr Lindsey is paid from the public purse and the need to establish the truth should take precedence in this case over attorney-client privilege. Lawyers for Mr Clinton argue that the privilege is sacrosanct.

Later in the day, a court in Little Rock, Arkansas ruled that Susan McDougal, a long-standing friend of the Clintons who has refused to testify against them, should be released from prison on health grounds. Ms McDougal has spent more than two years in prison for contempt of court for refusing to give evidence about the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater, the failed land deal that is also the subject of an investigation by Kenneth Starr.

The one cloud on Mr Clinton's horizon was a report that Linda Tripp, the Pentagon employee who taped 20 hours of conversations with Ms Lewinsky, has been summoned to give evidence to the inquiry next week.