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Jewish World Review June 7, 2000 /4 Sivan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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That ever vaster right-wing conspiracy -- AND SO IT BEGINS. You can almost hear the War Room gearing up, the e-mail flying, the charges being test-marketed online.

Here is the word from Charles Schumer, freshman senator and senior Clinton apologist from the First Couple's latest home state: As for that disciplinary committee in Arkansas that recommended disbarment for the president, Senator Schumer tells the New York Times, it's just "a kangaroo court'' unworthy of respect.

Isn't this the same Charles Schumer who, during the president's impeachment, explained that the defendant's offenses -- if any -- could be safely left to the judicial system? But now that it's beginning to act, the senator is outraged. Why am I not surprised?

No matter how they voted in these closed proceedings, the members of this disciplinary committee of the state's Supreme Court will now get the familiar treatment:

They'll be labeled Clinton-haters, their impartiality will be doubted, their professional credentials dismissed, and in general they'll be painted as suspect characters, and soon enough as villains darker than Guy Fawkes or even ... Kenneth Starr!

Already the comparisons to that Devil Incarnate have begun. Listen to one Jay Bradford, president pro tem of Arkansas' scandal-pocked state Senate, as he explains why a heretofore respected committee of citizens would join a conspiracy against a president:

"It's kind of like a continuation of the special prosecutor's effort. It's an extreme right-wing group getting more out of the publicity of trying to get the president's law license.''

That vast right-wing conspiracy seems to be getting vaster all the time. After all, it wasn't just the Southeastern Legal Foundation that brought this complaint to the attention of the state's Supreme Court, but The Hon. (and honorable) Susan Webber Wright.

Is she in on this plot, too? One would never have guessed it. Her disguise was perfect: As a federal judge, she'd ruled in the president's favor (more than once) before she found out he had given false testimony in her court.

And now the conspiracy has spread to other outwardly respectable citizens: the members of the Arkansas Supreme Court's committee on professional conduct who made this recommendation -- five lawyers and a retired schoolteacher. This kangaroo court doubtless meets in a cellar somewhere every Wednesday night to plot their mischief against an innocent president and American hero.

After all the fog has cleared away, and all the lawyerspeak spoken, the question facing the court in the matter of William J. Clinton, Esq., will be simple enough: Should someone who has intentionally, deliberately, repeatedly given false testimony, and obstructed the judicial process, be allowed to practice law in the State of Arkansas?

To ask the question, in a society with standards, is to answer it.

It may be a single case, but what is at stake in this small but highly revealing matter is a lot bigger than Bill Clinton. (So many things are.) At stake is the dignity of the law. It is whether someone in high office should be held to high standards. It is whether lawyers have a special obligation to uphold the law. To succeed, as it has succeeded year after year in complicating the simple, the fog machine must obscure any considerations so basic.

The fog will surely grow thicker. The president himself now contends that the testimony he gave was not legally false, as if truth and falsehood become something else in a courtroom. His defenders argue that this case doesn't concern anything really important like money -- even though, after his falsehoods were revealed, the president would settle the case for $850,000.

No, this case concerns only petty matters like contempt of court and the integrity of the judicial process. Anyway, the president was just giving a deposition, rather than testifying in a real trial, so any oath he might have taken didn't count. King's X

Almost every day, depositions are taken in this country, and somebody holds up his right hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Suppose there is no real punishment for lying a little, or a lot for swearing falsely and undermining justice?

Suppose lawyers are given a signal in a high-profile case, one that will be cited as a precedent and maybe even taught in law schools, that they won't risk anything serious -- like their license -- by a little falsifying under oath, a little obstruction of the judicial process? A precedent, and a low one at that, will be set. The law is a great teacher -- not just for good, but for ill.

But I haven't mentioned my favorite piece of spin so far: The president wasn't acting as a lawyer when he misled the court, but testifying as a litigant . It's an interesting distinction, this flimsy one between lawyer and litigant. It is grounded on the assumption that when a lawyer raises his hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, he should be held to a lower standard than he ordinarily would.

Interesting. A lawyer's obligation to tell the truth, once under oath, grows lesser rather than greater. For he ceases to be a lawyer and officer of the court when he takes the stand.

Yes, interesting. But not convincing.

This argument may sound even stranger to those of us who have had to watch, again and again, the unbearable tape of Bill Clinton's lip-biting testimony that awful day. It is clear that he was thinking every minute as a lawyer, and only as a lawyer -- a sleazy one -- rather than as a man who had sworn to tell the truth, on his soul.

Surely only someone learned in the law could have shown such smooth contempt for it. Just as only someone with supreme confidence in his boyish charm and proven appeal could have been so sure he could get away with it. (Remember how he paused and pondered, as if sincerely trying to remember whether he'd ever been alone with Monica?)

How did we come to this pass, to all these interesting but in the end appalling distinctions that say less about the subject under discussion than about the attitudes of those drawing them? When did we start thinking like this?

Answer: When the law became a game, instead of a discipline. When truth in the courtroom became something different from truth outside. When the law became a technically deft trade, like auto body repair or counterfeiting, rather than a light. When law was separated from other disciplines -- philosophy, theology, the social sciences and, when necessary, reason itself -- and became the stuff of talk-show shouting matches and too-clever briefs.

We began thinking this way when the law became something to use, not to guide us. When the adversarial process ceased to be a part of the law and metastasized into all of it. And when what came to count with us, no matter how we had to shift and trim and evade and duck and dodge, was to win. And so lose all.

That is how we reached this sorry point, and why even now some judges and lawyers and an occasional retired schoolteacher are heard from, reminding us of some home truths, and cutting through the fog. Even now, strangely enough, there are those in authority who are unafraid to see the obvious, and say what needs to be done: Disbar the shyster.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate