An Arkansas Supreme Court disciplinary committee recommended yesterday that President Clinton be disbarred from law practice for lying under oath, the most severe punishment sought to date for his misconduct about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After an uncertain interval to prepare paperwork during which lawyers often surrender licenses to avoid further public disgrace the complaint will be filed as a civil action in Pulaski Circuit Court in Little Rock. In Arkansas, the county circuit court is the criminal court of original jurisdiction.
The trial before a judge would be public and decisions subject to lengthy appeals at the state Supreme Court, which last week resolved a suspension recommendation received 8 and 1/2 years ago.
“We will vigorously dispute it in a court of law,” said Mr. Clinton’s criminal-defense attorney, David E. Kendall, who said the recommendation defied legal precedent.
“When I’m not president anymore, I’ll be happy to defend myself,” Mr. Clinton told NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw who asked if the contempt citation, for which he paid a $90,000 fine last year, and disbarment would stain his record.
“There is certainly another side to both those things you mentioned,” Mr. Clinton said, while insisting he would not personally appear to answer the charges.
“I knew when the timetable for this was moved up that I’d always be at a severe disadvantage because I will not personally involve myself in any of this until I am no longer president. It’s not right.”
The disbarment recommendation is the first known proceeding to try to take the law license of a sitting president. Richard Nixon surrendered his California license after leaving office and later was disbarred by New York.
In Arkansas, such cases customarily are filed in the name of the committee executive director. The present director is James A. Neal, who submitted notice of his resignation several weeks ago after 11 years in the post.
Mr. Neal stuck to the silence he has maintained during the case.
Mr. Clinton also waits until after he leaves office in January for independent counsel Robert Ray to decide whether to pursue federal criminal charges on lies about Miss Lewinsky and other misconduct in the Paula Jones case.
The recommendation to strip the president of license No. 73019 was a response to complaint No. 2000-013 by Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock and No. 2000-018 by an Arkansas-licensed lawyer who is an official of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
Judge Wright issued a 32-page contempt of court order on April 12, 1999, when she listed lies in the Jones case, some made in her presence in a deposition in Washington, and fined him about $90,000.
“It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to, among other things, engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation or to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” the judge said in explaining why she was sending the order to the state bar.
After that, she left it to Southeastern Legal Foundation President Matthew Glavin to push the committee with threats of a lawsuit after months of apparent inaction.
“Today, the committee’s decision sends a message to the American people that the rules which govern attorney conduct will be enforced,” Mr. Glavin said last night. “With some prodding by SLF and others, the system works.”
He called the recommendation “confirmation that the legal system will police its own, regardless of the position held by the attorney in question.”
Formal notice of the recommendation was filed in a one-paragraph letter with Arkansas Supreme Court Clerk Leslie W. Steen by the panel, which decided the issue in a secret ballot Friday.
An unknown number of committee members met after eight of them recused themselves because of possible conflicts of interest regarding the former governor, Mr. Glavin said. Four votes are necessary to recommend any sanctions.
“You are hereby notified of the decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct to initiate disbarment proceedings against attorney William Jefferson Clinton. This action is being taken against the respondent attorney as a result of the formal complaints … and the findings by a majority of the committee that certain of the attorney’s conduct as demonstrated in the complaints constituted serious misconduct in violation … of the Arkansas Model Rules of Professional Conduct,” the letter said.
Arkansas is among the many states that allows a disbarred lawyer to petition after five or more years for reinstatement based on good behavior. While a lawyer is disbarred, other states that know of the case honor that order, as do federal courts in which the lawyer is admitted to practice, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even without the fight vowed by Mr. Kendall, the Arkansas process can take some time.
On May 11, the state Supreme Court took final action on a hard-fought recommendation to suspend lawyer Jimmie L. Wilson for 1990 convictions for selling mortgaged property and spending money from an Agriculture Department bank account in 1981 and 1982. The request to suspend his license was delivered to the court Oct. 9, 1991.
The offenses charged to Mr. Clinton include lying in December 1997 in written responses to questions from Mrs. Jones’ lawyers in the sexual-misconduct case. He was cited by the judge for untruthfully denying on Dec. 23, 1997, he had “sexual relations” with any federal employee while president and orally denied the same on Jan. 17, 1998, at the deposition, when he was specifically asked about Miss Lewinsky.