- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2000

In what might be the last legal brief filed by William Jefferson Clinton Esq., the president argues for 80 pages to the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct that what he really needs is a good, sound reprimand to restore the luster to his law license.

That is the gist of what must be a prize-specimen of Clintonian hairsplitting, a veritable treatise of half-truths assembled by the president's lawyers to fight against Mr. Clinton's possible disbarment. What a shame it is that, according to the president's wishes, this undoubtedly singular document remains under seal, and not in some suitable public venue a climate-controlled glass case, maybe, alongside the nation's founding documents. For the moment, at least, the Great Law License Defense, with its masterful shadings and artful evasions, is left almost exclusively to the connoisseurship of the Arkansas court ethics committee. Here's hoping they appreciate what they have.

Thanks to the efforts of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which lodged its formal complaint against Mr. Clinton with the Arkansas court before U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright more famously lodged her own, the American people have at least some inkling of the president's defense. According to the foundation's rebuttal to the president's secret brief, Mr. Clinton spends most of his 80 pages arguing that his testimony before Judge Wright in the Jones sexual harassment suit was "not 'false' as he defines that term." How about how Webster's defines that term? After all, in her unprecedented (and uncontested) contempt ruling against Mr. Clinton, Judge Wright cited 10 count 'em, 10 lies in Mr. Clinton's testimony, "which no reasonable person would seriously dispute." Despite this compelling record, it looks as if the president is still trying to flimflam folks with that old, "it all depends on what the meaning of 'false' is," strategy.

Will it work? It will probably come down to how susceptible to insult the collective intelligence of the ethics committee is. Meanwhile, besides restating Mr. Clinton's transgressions against various legal ethics codes, the Southeastern Legal Foundation's rebuttal reminds us of two often overlooked arguments that point the way to disbarment.

The first disposes of the familiar argument that urges, in a nutshell, enough already; the man has already been punished with a contempt citation and a $90,000 fine. But as Southeastern reports, American Bar Association (ABA) standards stipulate that a contempt citation is not sufficient punishment for misconduct. "It must be emphasized that the goals of lawyer discipline are not properly and fully served if the judge who observes unethical conduct simply deals with it on an ad hoc basis," the ABA standards read. "It may be proper and wise for a judge to use contempt powers in order to assure that the court maintains control of the proceeding and punishes a lawyer for abusive or obstreperous conduct in the court's presence. However, the lawyer discipline system is in addition to, and serves purposes different from contempt powers and other mechanisms available to the judge." If this weren't the case, of course, Judge Wright would never have referred her contempt citation to the ethics committee in the first place.

Then there is the precedent set by the analogous case of Richard Nixon, another lawyer, who, as a sitting president, obstructed justice. The New York court that stripped Mr. Nixon of his license to practice law ruled that Mr. Nixon's actions were "rendered even more grievous by the fact that … [Mr. Nixon] is an attorney and was at the time of the conduct in question the holder of the highest public office in this country and in a position of public trust." Sound familiar? Mr. Clinton's defenders may turn their knuckles white clinging to the fact that he was not acting as a lawyer when his misconduct occurred, but that same fact didn't protect Mr. Nixon. Besides, consider the one salient difference Southeastern cites between the Nixon and Clinton cases: "Unlike President Nixon, President Clinton has been impeached and has been held in civil contempt, two factual findings by tribunals that the allegations against President Clinton are true."

It is worth noting another difference. Mr. Nixon actually hoped to resign from the New York bar. The New York court, however, insisted on disbarment proceedings. Mr. Clinton, typically, expects to brazen it out. What a legacy.

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