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THE LAW

Refreshing Ruling Blows Away the 'Is, Is' Smoke

April 18, 1999|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."

WASHINGTON — The case of Clinton vs. Jones has ended with, legally speaking, not a bang but a whimper. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, found President Bill Clinton to be in civil contempt of court for having lied during his deposition in the Jones case. Wright then meted out the punishment: She ordered Clinton to pay Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers their expenses related to the deposition and to reimburse the court a grand total of $1,202, the cost of Wright's travel to Washington to supervise the event. Yet, despite the less-than-Draconian sanctions, the judge's opinion was solidly satisfying. The waters around this president have run so muddy for so long that it is a relief to see a person of some authority call him to account in plain English.

Wright's contempt finding was not the last gasp of a frustrated Clinton hater. Last April, after four years of pretrial maneuvering that took the Jones case to the U.S. Supreme Court and back, the judge dismissed the suit altogether, finding that even if all the facts alleged by Jones were true, they did not constitute a violation of law or a basis for liability. What moved Wright to revisit the president's deposition appears to have been the simple fact that Clinton did not simply lie during the lawsuit but lied to the judge's face and subsequently announced to the nation that he had done so.

Politics, of course, bollixed up the court's handling of the contempt issue. On Aug. 17, 1998, the president told the grand jury and then the rest of us, via TV circuits closed and open, that he had been misleading, as he delicately put it, about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in his January deposition. Soon afterward, the Office of Independent Counsel submitted findings to the House from the its investigation of the Lewinsky matter, and the impeachment process began. Shortly after that, in one of the many orders handed down in the Jones case, Wright raised the possibility that Clinton's actions might merit a contempt finding. But she put off considering the issue because of the impeachment proceedings underway.

After the president's acquittal, Wright took up the contempt matter. By that time, Clinton and Jones had come to a settlement agreement, though the issue of attorneys' fees was still pending. Finally, about a month after the attorneys' fees were settled, Wright's contempt opinion emerged.

The result of this sequence of events, with political issues piled on top of legal ones, was that by the time the judge made her finding of contempt, the Jones case was no longer actually pending before her. Legal critics of her opinion have already emerged, claiming that without a pending case, the court did not have the jurisdiction necessary to impose civil contempt, which is ordinarily used by judges to keep participants from obstructing a case in progress. A judge also has the alternative of criminal contempt, which clearly can be imposed after a case is done. But imposing criminal-contempt sanctions requires due-process protections, a jury trial and proceedings so long and disruptive that, in Clinton's case, they are precluded by--politics.

In short, there was no way for Wright to get a clean, nonproblematic shot at imposing some form of contempt sanctions. At least the punishment she chose is light enough so that the president is not likely to appeal her choice of weapons to a higher court.

From the point of view of the rest of us, it is well worth whatever legal ambiguities cloud Wright's opinion to see the neat way she disposed of the merits of the issue. She took as her job the task of finding the most economical, least ambiguous way to show what an insult Clinton had delivered to the legal process, of which he was a part. She decided to deal only with those obstructions by the president that she could demonstrate from evidence wholly within the record of his deposition and later grand-jury testimony. Then, from that record, she chose two issues on which the contradictions were such as "no reasonable person would seriously dispute."

One issue was composed of questions in the deposition about whether the president had ever been alone with Lewinsky--for instance, in the now notorious hall between the Oval Office and kitchen: "I don't believe so, unless we were walking back to the back dining room with the pizza." The other issue was that of whether there was a sexual relationship, about which more need not be said. Ever.

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