- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

The Supreme Court of Arkansas Thursday ordered its own bar ethics committee to start formal disciplinary proceedings against President Clinton, if it has not already done so in secret.

"We order they take such action forthwith" if the accusations of lying under oath and obstructing justice already filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation and U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright are not in the mail, the court said in an unusual public order.

The delicately worded unsigned opinion avoided conclusions but implied the Supreme Court Committee on Professional Responsibility (CPR) is dragging its feet on charges including lying under oath and obstructing justice. The accusations could cost Mr. Clinton his license to practice law.

The White House and CPR Executive Director James A. Neal had no comment, but the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which recently asked the court to prod the disciplinary committee along, declared victory.

"He lied and he obstructed the judicial process and he was held in contempt for this," said Matthew Glavin, president of the Atlanta-based foundation.

"The Supreme Court agreed with us that 16 months is not within the normal process and that they must move forward with the complaint," Mr. Glavin said. "Clearly, based on the order, the Supreme Court thinks there is enough evidence to proceed."

The court seemed to disagree with that, according to a brief concurring footnote co-signed by Chief Justice W.H. "Dub" Arnold and Justice Ray Thornton, who joined the conclusion the president's case should be handled like any other but said the outcome was not yet decided.

"We are not deciding any issues concerning the merits of the complaint and nothing in this opinion should be construed as commenting upon the merits of the suit," they said.

The state high court conceded Mr. Neal and the disciplinary committee labor under rules of tight secrecy and has the power to refuse to start formal proceedings unless the evidence is sufficient, authority which Mr. Neal invoked in his answer to the foundation's charges.

But the order went on to say that little discretion would be needed to honor Judge Wright's signed April 12 order holding the president in civil contempt of court for repeated "intentionally false" statements under oath in the Paula Jones case. They included his semantic jousting over what constituted sexual relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and denial of an extramarital affair.

The judge forwarded her order to the disciplinary committee April 18.

"Our procedures mandate that the committee accept and treat as a formal complaint any writing signed by a judge of a court of record," the justices said. "Thus, a judge's complaint requires little or no action by the executive director or committee before the committee must begin its procedures in notifying [Mr. Clinton] of the charges … so the attorney can explain or refute them."

The court told Mr. Neal and the bar's seven-member disciplinary panel to inform the complainants quickly of any response from the president, if and when he replies.

If he does not respond in 30 days, or any extension of time that is granted, the court said, "the director shall proceed to issue ballots to the committee members" who would then issue its verdict and order punishment.

White House spokesman James Kennedy refused again Thursday to say whether such charges ever were forwarded to the president or answered by him.

"We've never chosen to comment. We're just not commenting one way or the other," he said.

Mr. Neal told the court he followed the rules, which require a docket number be assigned to the case, the complaint forwarded within 10 days, and a deadline set for response, but would not explain yesterday why there had been no further action in the case.

"I have no comment," Mr. Neal said from his home in Little Rock.

L. Lynn Hogue, general counsel of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, said that as the complainant, he should have received some update despite the secrecy rules but has gotten no response.

The court said Mr. Hogue's complaint, filed Sept. 15, 1998 before the president was impeached and seven months before Judge Wright held him in contempt charged behavior "inimical to and destructive of the administration of justice such as lying, deceit, perjury, fraud, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury and witness tampering."

Mr. Clinton paid a fine and costs totaling $90,000 under Judge Wright's historic 32-page civil verdict, the first ever to hold a U.S. president in contempt of court.

"The court takes no pleasure whatsoever in holding this nation's president in contempt of court, but there simply is no escaping the fact that the president … undermined the integrity of the judicial system," the judge said.

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