Judge's Order Scrambles The Odds
By Thomas H. Moore/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (Jan. 30) -- When U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright removed the Monica Lewinsky material from Paula Jones' lawsuit against President Bill Clinton on Thursday, she may have dramatically altered the legal threats facing him.
Jones' legal team is obviously the big loser in Wright's decision. They have been described as "apoplectic" at the decision, and their case has been damaged. The matter of Monica Lewinsky was apparently one of the most solid leads they had uncovered in making Jones' civil-rights case against Clinton.
Jones' lawyers are considering appealing the decision.
Also left reeling is Whitewater Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who may have lost a significant amount of his case against Clinton, presidential pal Vernon Jordan and Lewinsky.
Although Wright's decision generates as many questions as answers, a few things can be sifted out of it.
Clinton's legal perils
On several fronts, the worst-case courtroom scenarios threatening Clinton may be ebbing.
Now that the Lewinsky material has been declared "not essential" to the Jones case, it's less likely that Clinton will be charged with perjury if the statement in the Jones case he gave regarding Lewinsky -- that he did not have a sexual relationship with her -- turns out to be false.
The perjury threat was suspect to begin with, since perjury in civil cases is almost never criminally prosecuted; whoever is lying usually just loses the case.
And, for a lie to be perjury, it not only has to be a lie under oath, it has to be "material." Is "material" the same as "essential"? That's for the lawyers to fight over and a judge to decide.
Adding to the muddle is the fact that Clinton has not yet signed off on his deposition in the Jones case. He has 30 days after the transcript of his statement is delivered to him to make changes, and the statement was due on his desk last weekend. Clinton has to explain any changes he makes, but it's important to note that the president has not yet officially and irrevocably signed off on what he said under oath on the matter.
The accusation of subornation of perjury -- the encouraging of someone else to lie under oath -- stems from early word that Lewinsky claimed in tape-recorded conversations that Clinton told her to lie about the affair, which she alleges she and the president had.
The latest word, however, is that Lewinsky is alleging that Clinton urged her to be "evasive" -- a skill the president's detractors say he could write a book on, but not quite a crime.
Of course, all bets are off if all hell breaks loose and the House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings. What's considered a criminal offense by the legal system has no bearing on what's considered an impeachable offense. An impeachable offense ("Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," according to the Constitution) is anything for which the House will impeach a president.
Jordan's legal perils
Starr's Whitewater inquiry had already touched upon whether Jordan, a Washington superlawyer, had helped former administration official Webster Hubbell through what amounted to buying Hubbell's silence in the Whitewater probe. So Jordan's alleged involvement with Lewinsky became Starr's bridge between his prior investigation and the latest allegations.
Lewinsky friend Linda Tripp approached Starr with tapes in which Lewinsky alleges that Jordan told her to lie about her relationship with Clinton. Starr used that information -- and its parallels to the Hubbell investigation -- to expand his inquiry into all things Lewinsky.
It's not clear yet how Judge Wright's decision affects Jordan. His unequivocal statementon Jan. 22 suggests that he is not concerned about being tripped up by other statements he's made, or will be called upon to make under oath.
But if Lewinsky is beginning to soft-pedal her assertion that Clinton and Jordan told her to lie, then subornation charges against Jordan could wither away as well.
Lewinsky's legal perils
Starr's leverage over Lewinsky comes from FBI-made tapes in which she is said to encourage Tripp to lie to Jones' lawyers.
But Wright's decision has most likely given Lewinsky's lead lawyer, William Ginsburg, the upper hand in his talks with Starr to win his client immunity, if Starr still intends to pursue Jordan or Clinton.
And if everything Lewinsky has said is no longer part of the Jones legal proceeding, all Starr may have to go on is what she says next, the statement she'll give once he grants her immunity.
If Starr doesn't grant Lewinsky immunity, she can either invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, or can stick to the version of events she gave in her Jones case deposition. Either way, Starr's got nothing. So the pressure on Starr to trade immunity for her testimony appears to increase.
At the same time, Lewinsky's incentive to make a deal has dropped considerably; Ginsburg has made it clear all along that he likes his chances of defending her on the charges Starr is holding over her. He may like his chances even better now that Lewinsky isn't enmeshed in the Jones case.