When attorney Robert Bennett called President Clinton in Senegal to inform him that Judge Susan Webber Wright had just thrown out Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment suit against him, the president thought it was an April Fool's joke.
But it was no prank. In a ruling that stunned Clinton's critics, Wright, responding to Bennett's motion for summary judgment due to lack of evidence, dismissed Jones' case, ruling that her charges against Clinton fell "far short" of the legal requirements to justify her claims of harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Wright's ruling represented a tremendous legal victory for Clinton, who would have become the first president in U.S. history to be sued in a civil action while in office. The ruling also presented a stinging setback to independent Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr, who had hoped to prove that Clinton perjured himself in his deposition for the Jones case and that such perjury represented a pattern of lies that extended into the Whitewater affair.
"It hurts Starr as badly as it hurts Paula Jones," said Stanley Brand, a prominent criminal lawyer in Washington and a former counsel to the House of Representatives. "Starr is saying the president lied in a civil deposition. Now, it's not material anymore because the proceeding to which it relates has been thrown out as invalid. It's going to be impossible to bring that case now."
Brand said Wright's ruling also will undermine Starr's efforts to show that the president perjured himself in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"As a practical matter, it makes the Lewinsky case less likely," he said. "In the perjury case, now that the underlying lawsuit has been thrown out, you would never be able to show a jury why that was important. The defense simply would be able to say, that lawsuit got thrown out. What are you going to show? Where's the pizazz for a jury for a case that no longer exists?"
"I would say Starr has been delivered a pretty serious setback," Brand said. "By a Republican Bush appointee and a woman, I might add."
John Whitehead, president of the conservative Rutherford Institute that is paying Jones' legal fees and a member of her legal team, expressed shock at Wright's decision and said he would immediately file an appeal to the Eighth Federal Circuit Court.
"It's not over yet," Whitehead warned.
But among legal experts, there is a strong sense that at least this troubling chapter of Clinton's presidency had been closed with resounding firmness. Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, had claimed that in 1991, then-Gov. Clinton summoned her to a hotel room in Little Rock, where he dropped his trousers, exposed himself and asked her to perform oral sex. Charging that Clinton's advance constituted sexual harassment, affected her emotionally and resulted in job discrimination against her, she sought $2 million in damages, as well as an apology from Clinton. Clinton denied the charges.
Clinton sought to have the trial postponed until after he had left office, arguing it would interfere with his duties as president. But the Supreme Court, in a ruling widely criticized by legal experts, ruled that the trial could go forward. The case was scheduled to open in Little Rock on May 27, with Judge Wright presiding.
In February, Bennett filed a motion to have the case dismissed, arguing Jones "has failed to produce evidence showing the existence of essential elements of each of her claims." In March, Jones' lawyers responded, filing 700 pages of documents, including Clinton's deposition in the case, in which he denied having a sexual affair with former White House intern Lewinsky. Jones' lawyers had asked Clinton about Lewinsky in order to prove a pattern of sexual misconduct by Clinton, as well as a pattern showing that women either benefited or suffered job discrimination depending on their response to Clinton's sexual advances.
What surprised even White House aides was the sweeping nature of Wright's decision, which threw out all of Jones' charges of sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and emotional outrage. The ruling was also notable for its defiance of the conventional wisdom, which held that the case was too political to dismiss outright.
Asked if the White House was surprised by Wright's decision, a senior White House official said: "From a legal standpoint, no, but from a human standpoint, it's always a pleasant surprise when you get everything that's been asked for."
"The sense of relief that's felt here in the White House is probably being replicated all across the country," the official added. "We believe that many millions of Americans are going to share the relief that we don't have this kind of trial coming up and a sense that this whole thing has been going too far. This, I think, will be welcomed in living rooms across the country."
One person who did not welcome Wright's ruling was Jones' attorney, Whitehead.
"We put a lot of time in the case, and we thought that we had enough evidence to go to trial," he said. "We were as surprised as a lot of people on the other side that she would actually grant every count in this case for summary judgment. I respectfully disagree that there's not one genuine issue of material fact in this case."
Whitehead sounded a theme that is certain to be repeated by Clinton's detractors in the coming days: that Judge Wright's decision reflected her long-standing sympathy for Clinton and her desire not to put the nation through such a wrenching ordeal. Wright, a Republican, was appointed to the federal bench by President George Bush.
"We have to remember that Judge Wright was the judge who said she didn't want the president to stand trial on this issue," Whitehead said. He acknowledged, however, that Jones' appeal could take years and that "by that time, Bill Clinton could be out of office."