Judge clears way for Clinton sex trial

Pressure mounts for out-of-court settlement

Bill Clinton came a step nearer to becoming the first serving United States president to appear before the courts yesterday, after a judge in his home state of Arkansas ruled that a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones should proceed. The judge, Susan Webber Wright, set the trial date for 26 May 1998, saying that - with a week's leeway either side to accommodate Mr Clinton's presidential duties - she hoped the case could be dispatched by mid-June.

The ruling represented a big setback for Mr Clinton, whose top legal team has been working hard behind the scenes to prevent the case coming to court. Yesterday, Judge Webber Wright dismissed a number of the charges brought by Ms Jones, including defamation, but left standing the main charges - of sexual harassment and emotional distress.

The case goes back to May 1991 when, Ms Jones claims, Mr Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, invited her to a room at the Excelsior hotel in Little Rock during a conference where she was working and made unwelcome sexual advances. She accuses Mr Clinton of dropping his trousers and asking her to perform oral sex. When she refused, saying "I'm not that sort of girl", she says, Mr Clinton let her go and asked her not to talk about it.

The episode came to light in an anti-Clinton article published in 1994 in the right-wing American Spectator magazine. Ms Jones, who had by then married and moved to California where she now lives, says that her attention was drawn to the article by friends in Arkansas who asked whether she was the Paula mentioned in the article.

The fact, her lawyer says, that friends recognised her (although her first name was the only identification) persuaded her that she should sue. Supporters of the Clinton camp argue that Ms Jones brought the case only after Mr Clinton had become president, had backing from the extreme- right and is hoping for a large sum in damages.

After failing to reach an out-of-court settlement with Ms Jones two years ago, Mr Clinton had tried - through his lawyer, Robert Bennett - to have any legal proceedings deferred until after his presidency on the grounds that his duties required him to be exempt from extraneous distractions like lawsuits. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found against the President earlier this year.

Since then, renewed aspersions were on Ms Jones' veracity and her motives in what appeared to be an orchestrated campaign to discredit her. Yesterday, however, the Arkansas judge found that Mr Clinton had a case to answer and ruled that the lawyers could proceed to take pre-trial evidence from witnesses.

Yesterday's ruling appears to put further pressure on Mr Clinton to settle out of court - a course recommended by many in the Clinton camp immediately after the Supreme Court judgment. However Mr Bennett reiterated that Mr Clinton would not agree to any settlement that entailed an apology and that the terms would have to exclude any admission of wrong-doing.

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