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In 1999, for only the second time in United States history, the Senate conducted an impeachment trial of a President. The acquittal of William Jefferson Clinton on February 12 came as no great surprise, given the near party-line vote on impeachment charges in the House of Representatives leading to the trial. The impeachment saga of President Clinton has its origins in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought in Arkansas in May, 1994 by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. Lawyers for Clinton argued that the Jones suit would distract him from the important tasks of his office and should not be allowed to go forward while he occupied the White House. Clinton's immunity claim eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled unanimously in May, 1997 against the President, and allowed discovery in the case to proceed. As a result of the Supreme Court's action, Judge Susan Weber Wright allowed discovery to proceed in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Judge Wright ruled that lawyers for Jones, in order to help prove her sexual harassment claim, could inquire into any sexual relationships that Clinton might have with subordinates either as Governor of Arkansas or as President of the United States. A critical moment in the cascade of events that would eventually lead to impeachment came on December 5, 1997 when Jones's lawyers submitted a list of women that they would like to depose. Included on the list the name of Monica Lewinsky. This is a trial that never should have happened. Clinton should have reached an early settlement (or defaulted) in his suit with Jones, which would have happened if he'd been honest with his own lawyers about his sexual history. The Supreme Court should have struck down the independent counsel law as a violation of separation of powers when it had a chance to do so in 1988. The Supreme Court missed a second chance to prevent impeachment when it failed to recognize, in Clinton v. Jones, that civil suits against a sitting president had the serious potential to be a major distraction from the president's duties. Clinton should not have trusted Lewinsky to be discreet. Kenneth Starr should not have engaged in a sting operation against the President of the United States, and the Administration should not have engaged in an operation to trash the OIC. Finally, of course, the President should not have lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Despite its predictable outcome, the impeachment trial of President Clinton is well worth studying, both for what it says about the failure of the judiciary and political institutions to respond adequately to an unprecedented situation, and what it tells us about the failures of Bill Clinton, the all-too-human occupant of the nation's highest office. The trial also raises fascinating questions about the distinction between public morality and private morality.

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Famous Trials

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Legal History Commons