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THE PAULA JONES CASE

Judge Wright: Candor Is Often Meted Out

Profile: GOP appointee has a lighthearted manner many find disarming. She also studied under Clinton.

April 02, 1998|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Susan Webber Wright, the Little Rock, Ark., federal judge who threw out Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, often shares folksy details of her life with lawyers and jurors in her courtroom.

While some starchy lawyers frown on that practice, those familiar with Wright say that her style only illustrates her self-confidence and independence--two qualities that helped propel this Republican appointee to issue a ruling that was cause for celebration in the Democratic White House.

"She is a bright woman who is not afraid of criticism," said John DiPippa, a law professor at the University of Arkansas who has known her for years.

Presiding two years ago at her first and only criminal trial in the Whitewater controversy, Wright stunned some attorneys by announcing she was leaving town while the jury was still deliberating. Explaining her decision in open court, she said that her lawyer husband, Robert Wright, was receiving an award at a legal conference at Disney World.

At first, she said, she thought he could travel there alone. "But he told me last night that I was going with him. So that about settles it."

Dan Guthrie, a Dallas lawyer who successfully defended an Arkansas banker in that case, finds her candor disarming.

"Most judges will say they have to recess court early because they have other business to attend to," Guthrie said. "But one day she told the jury she had to leave early to get her hair done. Jurors seemed to love it."

Late one Friday afternoon, Wright announced to the lawyers huddled around her bench: "I don't know about you guys, but I'm going home to do some serious alcohol tonight."

"I think she only says things like that to inject some levity in the process," one attorney remarked.

If true, her appearance belies a light-hearted approach. She scans her courtroom with hooded eyes behind small, steel-rimmed spectacles, her hair held in place by two barrettes. Even while she evinces a down-to-earth manner, associates say that she is deadly serious about her job.

Her Whitewater-related trial in 1996 involved charges brought by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that two bankers, Herby Branscum Jr. and Robert M. Hill, had tried to conceal from federal regulators certain financial transactions of two past Clinton campaigns. Both bankers were acquitted.

But in an opinion adverse to the White House, Wright ruled that Susan McDougal, a convicted former business associate of Clinton's in Whitewater real estate deals, had to remain imprisoned for contempt for refusing to testify before Starr's grand jury in Little Rock.

Appointed to the federal bench in 1990 by President Bush, Wright, who is 49, earlier had earned a reputation as a hard-driving student and later attracted the attention of powerful people. She even studied admiralty law under a future president named Bill Clinton.

Clinton, fresh from Yale Law School in 1973, went home to teach law at the University of Arkansas and found Susan Webber in his class the following year. The judge has told friends that it was noteworthy because professor Clinton that year lost most of the final exams, including Webber's.

In a Clintonesque compromise, he offered all his students a B-plus. Wright refused, wanting to maintain her A average, and she asked to take a different exam.

She ultimately got the A and went on to become the first woman to serve as editor of the school's law review. That was especially gratifying for a young woman who had worked as a waitress to pay her way through Randolph-Macon Women's College and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she earned a master's degree in public administration before receiving her law degree.

Although a Democrat in earlier years, Wright campaigned for the House against incumbent John Paul Hammerschmidt, an Arkansas Republican, in 1974 against an unsuccessful challenge mounted by Clinton. Fourteen years later, in 1988, while a law professor herself, she headed a local organization of lawyers for Bush, an important steppingstone to her appointment as a judge.

Close observers of the Jones lawsuit said that Wright, from the beginning, signaled her desire to manage carefully the evidence in the trial and keep the proceedings from becoming an open-ended extravaganza.

Jeffrey Toobin, a nationally known author on legal affairs, said that Wright "attempted at every opportunity to focus the issues and limit the scope of the case. She has acted like a classic trial judge--simplifying, managing, attempting to identify and resolve the key issues raised by a tangled lawsuit."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

In the Judge's Words

Excerpts from the opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright:

EXCERPTS

"Although the governor's alleged conduct, if true, may certainly be characterized as boorish and offensive, even a most charitable reading of the record in this case fails to reveal a basis for a claim of criminal sexual assault."

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