Court gives Paula Jones the go-ahead for Clinton sex case

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In a judgment that was said by legal experts to put Bill Clinton's presidency seriously at risk for the first time, the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the President cannot postpone a sexual harassment suit brought against him just because he is President. The ruling means that Paula Jones, a former employee of Mr Clinton's home state of Arkansas, may pursue her lawsuit against him for damages.

Ms Jones claims that during a conference in May 1991, Mr Clinton - then governor of Arkansas - called her to a hotel room, made sexual advances, and invited her to perform oral sex. When she refused, saying that she was "not that kind of girl", she says Mr Clinton told her: "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."

Ms Jones has given detailed, and consistent, accounts of the meeting, which include the graphic reference to "distinguishing characteristics in Mr Clinton's genital area". Her presence in the hotel room is confirmed by one of Mr Clinton's bodyguards, and she is said to have other witnesses prepared to testify in her favour.

Mr Clinton has consistently denied all the allegations and says he has no recollection of ever meeting Ms Jones. Despite this, his lawyers almost reached an out-of-court settlement with Ms Jones two years ago.

The case has long been thought to be the most potentially damaging of the many scandals and alleged scandals in which Mr Clinton and his wife, Hillary, are embroiled. The rights and wrongs of the Whitewater land deal are so complicated that they have failed to catch the public imagination, while the allegations of illegal funding of the Democratic Party have failed to implicate the Clintons directly. Ms Jones's allegations are, in contrast, easily understood and not implausible.

The only part of yesterday's judgment that could be used to defer a lawsuit was the view from Justice John Paul Stevens that a delay might be justified "by considerations that do not require the recognition of any constitutional immunity. The high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive, though not justifying a rule of categorical immunity, is a matter that should inform the conduct of the entire proceeding."

Opinion was divided yesterday on the possible outcome if the case was not deferred. The most dramatic forecast was that the case would come to court and Mr Clinton would have to decide whether to testify or not - with all the inferences that would be drawn from a refusal. The question that would then arise would be whether a lost lawsuit could force the President's resignation given the public mood wherever sex and politics mix.