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Jewish World Review August 23, 1999 /11 Elul, 5759

Nat Hentoff

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Lawyerly ethics -- AFTER HIS IMPEACHMENT WAS OVER, the president said blithely, "This is much ado about nothing. I survived the odds." (New York Daily News, Feb. 7). Then, as Colbert King noted in The Washington Post (April 3), Clinton boasted "that he was `honored' by the opportunity impeachment gave him to rise to the Constitution's defense."

Clinton has been honored again. On Aug. 9 he was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association, in Atlanta.

The day before, on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," Tim Russert, referring to "the first president of the United States to be held in contempt of court," read from Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision to fine the president $90,000 for violating "this court's orders by giving false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process."

She emphasized that "sanctions must be imposed not only to redress the misconduct of the president in this case, but to deter others who might themselves consider emulating the president of the United States by engaging in misconduct that undermines the integrity of the judicial system."

It is hardly a deterrent to potential emulators of the president in this regard that he has risen to applause before the nation's arbiter of legal ethics.

I asked the ABA why this prized invitation was extended to Clinton. Its president, Philip Anderson, replied:

"Whenever the president of the United States, who is the leader of the free world as well as our country, wishes to discuss the nation's business with the members of the ABA, we should listen. We have always done so, most recently in 1985, when then-President Ronald Reagan spoke at our annual meeting."

I wasn't aware that then-President Reagan had been impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. But I am aware there is an ethics complaint pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court's Commission of Professional Conduct to disbar William Jefferson Clinton (bar No. 73,019). Judge Wright's conclusions as to his ethical behavior should have some bearing on the ultimate decision. Back in the 1960s, writer and philosopher Paul Goodman, who was a considerable influence on students protesting the war in Vietnam and racism at home, became disappointed at the cynicism of many of these young activists. They had come to believe that to succeed in a profession was to sell out. So Goodman created a course at the New School in New York at which professionals in various fields -- including the law -- tried to show, through their own work, that professionals could retain their ideals and integrity and still make a decent living.

Now we have the ABA, which drafted the Code of Professional Responsibility, which has been adopted by the courts in nearly every state. The code mandates that "lawyers maintain the highest standard of ethical conduct" and "shall not... engage in conduct involving dishonesty... deceit or misrepresentation" and cannot "engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice."

In writing of the ABA's invitation to William Jefferson Clinton, Gerald Walpin, a New York attorney, noted in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 9) that "obstruction of justice and perjury -- of which Judge Wright found Mr. Clinton guilty -- have been held to constitute offenses, under the Code of Professional Responsibility, that `belie the basic character qualifications required of a lawyer.'"

Walpin quotes a justice of the Arizona Supreme Court who, in 1982, called for the disbarment -- rather than a one-year suspension -- of former U.S. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. The reason: "Of all the offenses which a lawyer can commit, untruthfulness in judicial proceedings is one of the most egregious." The justice added that "Lawyers are required to be truthful in their practice (even) when not under oath. It is even worse when a man who has been attorney general of the United States, and whose conduct should therefore be an example to the public and all other lawyers, commits these violations."

Is there a lesser standard for the president?

The ABA Journal's Daily Report noted that at the annual meeting in Atlanta another noted speaker was "Webster Hubbell... Once the No. 3 official in the Justice Department, he later spent 18 months in prison for defrauding its law partners."

Hubbell appeared on a program titled "Life as a Target." Did Mr. Hubbell sign autographs?

Paul Goodman's class on integrity in the professions was not well-attended. But he took comfort in the lawyers he knew who kept fighting against institutional odds for simple justice -- while not obstructing it.

So do I.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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