Chief Justice William Rehnquist refused Friday to spare President Clinton's Secret Service protectors from testifying in the Monica Lewinsky case, abruptly ending a bitter legal dispute and clearing the way for prosecutors to question some of their last key witnesses.
"Because several of my colleagues are out of the country, I have decided to rule on the matter myself rather than refer it to the conference (full court)," Rehnquist said. "The opinion of the court of appeals seems to me cogent and correct."With the Supreme Court ruling near, President Clinton's Secret Service protectors arrived at a courthouse minutes before noon, when an earlier court ruling blocking their testimony was set to expire.
The Secret Service officers, including the chief of Clinton's security detail, Larry Cockell, filed into the courthouse as ordered by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Cockell went to the grand jury area of the courthouse immediately after the ruling.
Starr was expected to use a different grand jury than the one that has been hearing the Lewinsky case.
Rehnquist, who just returned from a European trip, said that while he was not ruling on the administration request to review the entire legal dispute he assumed enough of his colleague might choose to do so later. But he said there was no need for an order stopping the grand jury testimony.
"In my view, the (administration) has not demonstrated that denying a stay and enforcing the subpoenas would cause irreparable harm," Rehnquist wrote.
"On balance, the equities do not favor granting a stay. A stay applicant must show that there is a likelihood that this court, having granted (review) and heard the case, would reverse the judgment of the court of appeals. The (administration) simply has not made that showing to my satisfaction."
With the legal drama unfolding, President Clinton again Friday declined to weigh in with an opinion on the dispute but did take a poke at a conservative appeals court judge, Laurence Silberman, who on Thursday suggested the administration was trying to "declare war" on Starr.
"You have to consider the source of that comment. That is simply not true," Clinton said.
The emergency stay is a separate matter from whether the court wants to hear arguments on the case this fall. The Clinton administration is seeking creation of a new legal privilege that would allow Secret Service agents to avoid testifying about what they saw and heard while guarding the president.
A district federal judge, a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel and, Thursday, the full 11-member appellate court, all ruled the agents must testify. They agreed with the position of Starr, who contends the Secret Service has no legal privilege to avoid cooperating with a criminal investigation.
So crushing a defeat was Thursday's ruling - on an administration request for the full court to reconsider the case - that not a single judge requested a vote to hear arguments. "This court has ruled that the privilege does not exist," the appellate court said.
In its brief filed Thursday with the Supreme Court, the Justice Department again portrayed the case as a life-and-death matter, insisting that a president who cannot trust his bodyguards would keep them at a distance.
The grand jury is investigating possible encouragement of perjury, witness tampering and obstruction in an alleged sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky.