The ruling makes it less likely that Clinton will have to testify again about her controversial email set-up. | Getty
A federal judge has rejected a request to force Hillary Clinton to submit to a sworn deposition in a suit related to her private email server, ruling instead that she must respond in writing to questions about the issue.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said the conservative group Judicial Watch had not demonstrated that an in-person deposition of Clinton was necessary to attempt to clarify whether the former secretary of state set up the system in order to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act.
The ruling makes it far less likely that Clinton will face the potentially politically damaging step of having to leave the presidential campaign trail in the coming months to allow some of her harshest critics to question her under oath about her controversial email set-up.
Technically, it is still possible one of several other judges considering similar cases could issue such an order, but the clock may run out soon on efforts to force such an appearance in advance of the November election.
“Judicial Watch’s argument that a deposition is preferable in this case because of the ability to ask follow-up questions is not persuasive,” Sullivan wrote in his opinion. “Given the extensive public record related to the clintonemail.com system, a record which Judicial Watch has acknowledged, Judicial Watch will be able to anticipate many follow-up questions. For those follow-up questions that Judicial Watch is unable to anticipate, it can move this Court for permission to serve additional interrogatories.”
The judge also said it appeared Judicial Watch “likely has a very limited number of questions for Secretary Clinton,” making it more plausible that the issue could be resolved in writing.
Sullivan noted that under legal precedents applicable to current and former Cabinet officials, the court should only require Clinton to appear at a deposition if “exceptional circumstances” justified such an approach.
A Clinton campaign spokesman welcomed the ruling and said the drive for a deposition was a transparent attempt to damage Clinton’s presidential bid.
“Judicial Watch is a right-wing organization that has been attacking the Clintons since the 1990s. This is just another lawsuit intended to try to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and so we are glad that the judge has accepted our offer to answer these questions in writing rather than grant Judicial Watch’s request,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said.
In a statement, a Judicial Watch official evinced no disappointment with the decision.
“We are pleased that this federal court ordered Hillary Clinton to provide written answers under oath to some key questions about her email scandal,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “We will move quickly to get these answers. The decision is a reminder that Hillary Clinton is not above the law.”
Clinton had opposed any deposition, saying it was pointless, in part because Clinton has no emails or server equipment to turn over for further review since it was all taken by the FBI during its investigation.
Sullivan didn’t appear to agree on that point, saying he still was intent on getting to the bottom of why the private server was set up and whether there were other reasons beyond Clinton’s public claim of “convenience.” He also said directing questions to her was appropriate since depositions of Clinton’s staff had shown that “her closest aides at the State Department do not have personal knowledge of her purpose in using the system.”
Asked about the ruling, Clinton lawyer David Kendall declined to comment beyond saying: “The decision speaks for itself.”
In his opinion, Sullivan also rejected Judicial Watch’s request to depose a State Department official who helped organize responses to Freedom of Information Act requests in Clinton’s office, Clarence Finney.
But the judge announced that he will order a deposition of a former State Department information technology supervisor, John Bentel. A State Department Office of Inspector General report indicated that Bentel told subordinates who asked about Clinton’s private email account that they should not raise the issue again. One said Bentel indicated the arrangement had been approved by State Department lawyers.
However, there’s no record of such legal approval. Last year, Bentel told investigators on the House Benghazi Committee that he could not recall any conversations about Clinton’s server.
The motion Sullivan ruled on Friday was brought in a lawsuit seeking records about the employment arrangements of one of Clinton’s longtime top aides, former deputy chief of staff Huma Abedin.
The judge, who has sharply criticized former Secretary of State Clinton for running the private-server system, is an appointee of President Bill Clinton.