Jewish World Review May 22, 2000/ 17 Iyar, 5760
to set an example
Now he has a chance to make liars of us.
A committee on lawyers' ethics, charged by the Arkansas Supreme Court, is considering whether to disbar Mr. Clinton for lying to a federal court, a felony that would send you and me to a federal pokey to study the art of laundry and the science of license-plate fabrication. Mr. Clinton wants to keep his license to practice law against the day when Hillary is through with him (the appearance of marital fidelity being important to all New Yorkers) and shows him to the door of her sparsely furnished mansion in Chappaqua.
The committee, like a lot of lawyers' scams in Arkansas, is stacked with Clinton friends, apologists, toadies and other hangers-on. Some of them have about given up getting anything out of this president, now that he is about to be the president from New York, but habits die hard and the betting here is that the prez will beat the rap.
But he has a chance to do something worthy for once: the Arkansas Supreme Court, the arbiter of "ethics" for the ladies and gents of the bar, has for the first time since Arkansas became a state ordered a lower-court judge thrown off the bench for being a crook.
Judge Morris Thompson of Little Rock, a judge of the Pulaski Circuit Court is, in fact, quite an operator. He was found by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, an arm of the Supreme Court, of having practiced law while he was a judge, of having written 59 hot checks, of having failed to pay his income taxes, of having used fictitious automobile license tags and having failed to disclose to the Supreme Court that he had received legal fees as outside income. Not only that, the discipline committee said, Judge Thompson "mingled" his clients' money with his own office funds.
Judge Thompson defended himself like, well, like a certain Arkansas pol who hit the big time. He didn't write 59 hot checks, it was only 21. He didn't have to report the extrajudicial kickbacks he received from lawyers to whom he referred cases — $150,000 in one case — because he thought "extrajudicial" meant that it had to be income connected to a judicial decision. Besides, it wasn't "willful."
Observed one justice at Mr. Thompson's Supreme Court hearing: "Switching auto license tags sounds pretty willful to me."
Yes, but he only switched the tags because he was repairing his other car.
"Let me make sure I have this straight," replied the justice. "It's OK to switch auto tags if you're going after parts?"
Well, OK, but even if he did break the law, he didn't violate any canons of judicial conduct. Judge Thompson, the investigating lawyer told the court, sees himself as the "owner" of the office and goes by the adage that it's better, or at least easier, to ask forgiveness than permission. If you think this is beginning to sound presidential, you may be right. As unbelievable as it is, his lawyer said after the hearing, that's his story and he's sticking to it.
So what, besides inspiration, does this mean for Bill Clinton? Judge Thompson himself brought up Mr. Clinton and his troubles. The persecution of himself, the judge said, was of a magnitude not seen since, well, since the persecution of Bill Clinton by the evil Kenneth Starr.
Maybe it's a hate crime. The judge is black. Can the bar of Arkansas set one standard for white lawyers, a low standard to be sure, and another, higher standard for black lawyers? Morris Thompson, after all, committed a misdemeanor here and there, maybe a felony or two, but where are the sort of high crimes for which the president was indicted by the House of Representatives? And where is the ordeal by spectacle like the one Mr. Clinton imposed on us all?
Mr. Clinton has made a career of lecturing conservatives and other Republicans about their base attitudes about race, always holding himself up as the example of what a white man could be if he only tried. Did not Toni Morrison, the prize-winning novelist, decree that Bill Clinton is our first black president? Is living by the double standard of the Old South the thanks blacks get?
He has an opportunity now to set an example that will live through the ages, a thundering declaration (or even a squeaky one) that since a black man was thrown off the bench for misbehavin' a little, the president cannot accept a lighter punishment for his crime of willful attack on the integrity of the judicial system that he took an oath to protect and defend. He could file a friend of the court (pardon the expression) brief forthwith, demanding equal justice.
Otherwise, Mr. President, what you do speaks so
loud nobody, white folks or black, can hear what
05/17/00: The Sunday school for Republicans