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Clinton, Bill

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Significance: Clinton appointed two centrist-liberal justices to the Supreme Court. The attempt by the conservative-dominated Republican majority in Congress to impeach Clinton prompted appeals to the Court that determined more limited interpretations for immunity from testifying.


Born William Jefferson Blythe IV, Clinton began life in a small town in the South three months after the death of his father in an automobile accident. As a teenager, he changed his surname to that of his stepfather, Roger Clinton. At the start of his political career, he came to be widely known as Bill Clinton. He studied at Georgetown University and from there went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1970 he enrolled in Yale Law School, graduating in 1973. At Yale, he met Hillary Diane Rodham, whom he married in 1975. Clinton began his professional career as a professor at the law school of the University of Arkansas, Fayettesville. His life, however, was to be neither that of a legal scholar nor a practicing lawyer. In 1976 he was successful in his Democratic bid to become Arkansas attorney general. Two years later he was elected to a two-year term as governor. However, the liberal nature of his administration and its challenges to vested interests caused him to lose his reelection bid in 1980. Toning down his radical stances, he was continuously reelected governor from 1982 until he became president a decade later. As a successful Democratic governor, Clinton was chosen to head the Democratic Leadership Council, where he emphasized his position as a “New Democrat.” In the light of conservative political advances during the 1980's, these Democrats modified some of the traditional liberal tenets of the party by advocating a reduced role for big govern- ment and an increased one for the private sector. Based on this political alignment and his decade-long success as governor, Clinton challenged incumbent George Bush in 1992 for the presidency. Clinton defeated a large field of Democratic candidates for the party's presidential nomination. However, both in campaigning for the nomination and after obtaining it, Clinton had to fend off numerous allegations regarding his character, especially in relation to financial dealings and extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, he was elected president.


Judicial Changes

In forming his cabinet in early 1993, Clinton vowed it would represent the diversity of the United States in terms of race, ethnic background, and gender. He insisted that his attorney general be the first woman nominated to that post. Such an appointment was considered important in relation to Clinton policy for defending a woman's right to abortion. After going through several candidates, he was able to obtain Senate approval of Janet Reno, who came to be the longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history. In the summer of the following year, Justice Byron R. White announced his retirement, providing Clinton with his first opportunity to make a Supreme Court appointment. He chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C. A centrist-liberal, Ginsburg was distinguished for her career in advancing women's rights. She was the first woman to obtain a tenured position at the law school of Columbia University, from which she graduated. Moreover, she headed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women's Rights Project and was thereby in charge of several cases regarding bias that went to the Supreme Court. On August 3, 1993, the Senate approved her appointment ninety-six to three. Her most important early opinion was to require that the all-male, publicly funded Virginia Military Academy admit women. Soon after the Ginsburg appointment, Clinton had another opportunity to appoint a member of the Court. Early in 1994 Justice Harry A. Blackmun announced his retirement. To succeed him, Clinton nominated Stephen G. Breyer, a federal appeals court judge in Boston. A graduate of the Harvard Law School and a former professor there, Breyer was a centrist who held conservative positions on economic issues but more liberal ones regarding social questions. Well connected to political and social elites along a wide ideological spectrum, he was respected among both Democrats and Republicans for his scholarly, judicious character. He especially was noted for his expertise in antitrust legislation and government regulation. On May 13, 1994, the Senate approved his appointment eighty-seven to nine. The Clinton appointees joined justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan; David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas, by George Bush; and John Paul Stevens, by Gerald R. Ford. President Nixon had appointed William H. Rehnquist, and Reagan had named him chief justice. The Clinton appointees established a centrist majority, often voting with moderates such as O’Connor, Souter, Kennedy, and even occasionally Rehnquist. Stevens was the most liberal of the justices; Thomas and Scalia, the most conservative.


Court Issues

Numerous Court cases were argued under the Clinton administration, many of which dealt with issues related to the rights of individuals and of various levels or agencies of government. In Shaw v. Reno, during the last part of the 1992-1993 Court year, the justices ruled five to four that white voters in the twelfth congressional district of North Carolina were justified in their charge that the area had been irregularly redistricted, or gerrymandered, to form a black racial majority, contrary to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the constitution. During 1995, in the National Organization of Women. v. Scheidler, justices voted unanimously to allow abortion rights advocates to interpret the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 against the activities of antiabortion groups. In several cases regarding relations between the federal government and the states, the Court favored the states concerning authority for setting the death penalty, defining conditions of interstate commerce, and state desegregation plans. It struck down a Colorado measure that would have denied equal protection under the law to gays. The Court made some exceptionally controversial decisions during the first half of 1997. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, for example, the Court struck down arguments of the Clinton administration supporting the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The law criminalized the transmission of indecent material via computer networks that juveniles might access. The Court considered parts of the law to be violations of the First Amendment, and by striking these down, it supported free speech on the Internet. It upheld the right of states to prohibit physician-assisted suicide and struck down federal legislation that attempted to regulate how state and local government agencies could deal with religious practices. It also struck down measures of the Brady Gun Control Law (1995) requiring states and local governments to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers. The following year, in Clinton v. City of New York, the Court denied that the president could exercise a line-item veto. This power had been given to him by Congress through the 1996 Line-Item Veto Act. The Court held that Congress acted unconstitutionally by giving the president “unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes.” The Court also ruled on a record number of sexual harassment cases. Regarding the decennial national census, which determines the population basis for congressional districts, it ruled in 1999 that the census could not be conducted based on sampling, a position supported by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party.


President Clinton as Defendant

An unprecedented historical event during the first half of President Clinton's second term was his impeachment by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This was followed by his trial for perjury and conspiracy in the Senate. The Supreme Court made crucial decisions in cases leading up to this trial and in respect to other legal situations of the president. During the first Clinton administration, a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, alleged that she had been sexually harassed by the president when he was governor. Since 1994 Clinton had been under investigation by a special counsel, Kenneth Starr, a conservative Republican charged with investigating potential legal irregularities in Clinton's gubernatorial administration in Arkansas. In more than four years of relentless investigation costing more than $40 million, Starr could find no criminal charges to file against the president. When Clinton testified in depositions taken preparatory to the Jones suit, he swore that he had not sexually harassed Jones, nor had he had sexual relations with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton considered the meaning of sexual relations to be ambiguous, and many jurists questioned the relevance of the testimony to the Jones case. Nonetheless, Starr delivered charges against Clinton to the House of Representatives, maintaining that the president had committed perjury in his testimony and had conspired for others to also commit perjury. Further, he considered these charges high crimes and misdemeanors, thereby worthy of impeachment and removal from office. In early 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that Jones had the right to pursue her case against Clinton despite the fact that he was a sitting president. She did not have to wait until after he had left office in order to pursue her case. The following year, court rulings supported Starr's argument that the president's attorneys and his Secret Service guards were not immune from testifying against him, rulings with extraordinary historical consequences for the presidency. Just before Christmas of 1998 the Republican-dominated House impeached Clinton. With this indictment, the Constitution required that the Senate become court and jury for the trial of the president. The chief justice of the United States became the presiding judge. For the first time in U.S. history, the chief justice sat in judgment in an impeachment trial of an elected president. There was overwhelming popular opposition to the impeachment, perceived as no more than an almost grotesque charade of justice, motivated solely by politics and malice. The Senate, its Republican majority decomposing, acquitted the president in January of 1999.



Further Reading

  • A complete, let alone a conclusive, assessment of Clinton and the Court cannot yet be made. Few scholarly, objective studies exist, and the events have been of an exceptional and extraordinary nature. Nevertheless, a number of works provide some information and analysis. Joan Biskupic and Elder Witt give a concise overview of the Supreme Court for the period from 1989 to 1996 in chapter 3 of volume 1 of the Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1997). George E. Curry has put together a collection of essays on one of the most controversial court issues of the Clinton years, affirmative action, in The Affirmative Action Debate (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996). Alan M. Dershowitz points out the extraordinary legal and constitutional consequences of the indictment and trial of Clinton, based on the Starr investigation, in Sexual McCarthyism: Clinton, Starr, and the Constitutional Crisis (New York: Basic Books, 1998). In volume 6 of Landmark Decisions of the Supreme Court (San Diego: Excellent Books, 1999), the case of Clinton v. the City of New York is reviewed as one of the most significant of the Clinton presidency. Robert J. McKeever offers an overseas perspective on the contemporary Supreme Court in the first section of his work, The United States Supreme Court: A Political and Legal Analysis (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997). David Maraniss analyses the education and legal and political career of Clinton in First in His Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) as does Meredith L. Oakley in On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton (Washington, D.C.: Regency, 1994).