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A license to revisit the word "is"

cover image

That will be the result if Clinton keeps his right to practice law

May 30, 2000
Web posted at: 2:59 p.m. EDT (1859 GMT)

Someday soon, we promise, this will all be over--the endlessly reiterated accusations and the emphatically repeated denials, the circumlocutions of shameless hirelings and the tut-tutting of editorialists in the Washington Post and the New York Times. All of it gone, vanished, poof!--as if it were a dream or a phantasm.

But first there's this one last little piece of business to finish. Last week a disciplinary committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court recommended that the court punish Bill Clinton--graduate of Yale Law School and former professor of law at the University of Arkansas, onetime state attorney general and most recently President of the United States--by taking away his license to practice law. The largest question raised by the Lewinsky scandal has, of course, been answered: Should the President, given his troublesome testimony under oath, be removed from office? The answer, duly arrived at by democratic means, is no. Now, however, the court's committee on professional conduct raises another, pricklier question: Is he ethical enough to be an Arkansas lawyer?

A snob might say the answer here is obvious. Teach him a few big words and help him out with the bar exam, and Joey Buttafuoco could qualify as an Arkansas lawyer. But this, it turns out, is unfair to the Arkansas bar. The state supreme court's committee was made up of five lawyers and one retired schoolteacher--most of whom, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, are Democrats and might thus be considered sympathetic to the President. Nevertheless, they found that Clinton had engaged in "serious misconduct" that was "prejudicial to the administration of justice" through "dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," for which disbarment was deemed the appropriate penalty.

In finding that the President lied, the committee agreed with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a group of conservative activists in Atlanta who filed the original complaint, and with Judge Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided over (and dismissed) Paula Jones' lawsuit against Clinton. Last year Wright fined the President $90,000 for contempt of court. The President, said Wright, "had undermined the integrity of the judicial process" when he denied in his Jones deposition that he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky or that he had ever been alone with her. In fact, by now it's pretty much unanimous: everybody knows that these answers, given under oath before a federal judge, were lies.

Well, almost everybody. After the committee's recommendation was made public last week, President Clinton told NBC's Tom Brokaw that he still "strongly disagrees" with Judge Wright's ruling--and with the committee's disbarment action too, of course. In a brief filed before the committee, his lawyers continued to insist that his answers in the Jones deposition were "not legally false." "Evasive," yes. And "incomplete." And even "misleading." Just not false. This fantastic denial will be familiar to anyone who followed the impeachment proceedings, and David Kendall, the President's attorney, vowed last week to "vigorously dispute" the committee's recommendation in a "court of law."

What this portends, in practical terms, is a hearing within the next several months in Arkansas's Pulaski County courtroom, where a circuit judge will be assigned to rule on the fate of the President's law license. Clinton has never suggested that he would ever again practice law, so a disbarment proceeding would be a purely antiseptic exercise. (And there's something exquisitely postmodern, not to say Clintonian, about punishing someone by not allowing him to do what he didn't want to do anyway.) No matter. In court the President and his lawyers will be forced to argue that, under the tortured definition of sex used in the Jones deposition, Monica Lewinsky was having sex with him and not vice versa. They will argue, as they did before the professional-conduct committee, that his long years of "public service" mitigate against punishment--with the odd implication that people in high office should be held to a lower standard of conduct than everyone else. They will cite precedents to show he should be only reprimanded and not disbarred. They may even revisit the definition of the word is. It will be as painful to watch as impeachment, except, thank God, without the Senators.

There is another precedent that President Clinton might cite but almost certainly won't. In 1974, run out of office and with his enemies still in pursuit, Richard Nixon faced disbarment too. Voluntarily, at his own instigation, Nixon relinquished his California law license. (He tried to do the same in New York, but the lawyers there wanted the fun of disbarring him themselves.) By sparing himself and his country a great deal of unpleasantness and embarrassment, Nixon performed an act of unaccustomed grace--class, even. A judge may soon decide whether President Clinton has the ethics of an Arkansas lawyer. But Clinton himself can decide whether he's as classy as Richard Nixon.


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Cover Date: June 5, 2000

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