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Jewish World Review May 25, 2000 /20 Iyar, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports


Disbar the shyster, or how 'bout them Arkansas mores? -- ARKANSAS MORES.

The phrase comes from the Wall Street Journal, which uses it to damn a whole state it knows nothing about in order to strike another blow at Bill Clinton. He is supposed to have been produced by this nest of corruption I live in.

Well, after all the jokes about Arkansas, all the slams and stereotypes, the mills of the law begin to grind exceeding fine in this small, self-respecting state. The state Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct -- and misconduct -- has done its duty and reached the obvious conclusion: The law must be respected. Even by lawyers. Bill Clinton should be disbarred. How 'bout them Arkansas Mores?

A confession: I was a bit surprised. For a while there, I'd started to doubt it would ever happen. I'd started listening to the homers, and thinking of how much influence they might still exert on the law, and what strings they might still be able to pull, even just heartstrings. Surely, some slick compromise would be suggested by the committee -- a suspension, a reprimand, a most severely worded slap on the wrist. ...

I apologize to the committee that made this decision -- five Arkansas lawyers and one Arkansas schoolteacher -- for ever thinking such thoughts, however briefly. These lawyers and this teacher have reminded us of what this state is, and what it values, and what it really honors in the end: not fame, not fortune, not the great god Success, not power or prestige or personality, but duty -- and the true grit to do it.

Thank you, professional conduct committee. You brought me back to reality -- no, up to reality. This state has standards. For some time now, come to think, it's been taking law licenses away from the high-and-mighty when they embarrass themselves, and the rest of us.

The next stage in this little matter is up to a circuit court in Little Rock, unless the defendant has the character to quietly turn over his license and spare us all one more Clinton scandal. Even Dick Nixon had the grace to spare his native state a disbarment proceeding; he didn't insist on drawing out the spectacle. But that may be too much for Arkansas to expect from its president.

In the end, how this case is handled will say less about the character of the accused, who's already been investigated and impeached and impugned beyond bearing, than it does about Arkansas' own standards, and about how high we hold the law.

Some of the excuses being made for this particular shyster are as strange as those made for others the Arkansas bar has had to discipline. For example, that no one was harmed by his conduct. Quite aside from the country, which had to spend a year impeaching and not convicting him, and the judicial process he obstructed, and the dignity of the law, there was someone else harmed, all right: the other party to the lawsuit in which William J. Clinton was testifying -- falsely.

Judge Susan Webber Wright, it's been pointed out, ruled against Paula Jones -- but that was before the judge realized the president's testimony was false. And that he had hidden "information deemed by the court to be relevant to the plaintiff's lawsuit.''

If the president hadn't been found out -- and does anybody think he would have stepped forward and confessed voluntarily if that blue dress hadn't turned up? -- the plaintiff in this case might have been denied justice entirely. Instead, Paula Jones settled for $850,000.

A sum that size may not mean much to the president (he works for the federal government), but it strikes me as serious money, and an indication of how serious his offense was. It must have impressed Ms. Jones, too, since she accepted it in lieu of pursuing her case further.

So much for Bill Clinton's testimony having been just a little white lie, or irrelevant, or just about sex. (What else would testimony in a sexual harassment case be about?)

This wasn't some petty prank; it was serious, extended, deliberate misconduct on the part of a member of the Arkansas bar.

And the rules say disbarment is an appropriate punishment for "serious misconduct,'' including "dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or misrepresentation.''

The state's Supreme Court itself has ruled, in another disbarment hearing, that "lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities going beyond that of other citizens.'' Taking that wise dictum into consideration, is there any question about whether The Hon. William Jefferson Clinton, Esq., should still have a law license?

One of the president's nervier defenses is that the court ought to go easy on him because of his years of "public service'' -- when, because of the great responsibilities he's been entrusted with over the years, he should be held to a higher, not a lower, standard.

What happens now to William J. Clinton, Esq., here in his home state will say less about his contempt for the law than about Arkansas' respect for it. Happily, this case already has raised legal standards; eight members of this committee on professional conduct recused themselves in the interests of justice. And they clearly left the matter in good hands.

The moral of this story, at least so far: Don't you ever try to fool an Arkansas schoolteacher, boy. Or even some Arkansas lawyers. Not all of 'em are foolable. Yes, you may get invited to address the American Bar Association after you've been found out, but our standards are higher here at home.

Bill Clinton's character is already well established, no matter what the state Supreme Court does, but the reputation of the Arkansas bar will certainly be affected by how this unpleasantness is handled. The spectacle of such a character still practicing law in Arkansas or anywhere else would confirm what every cynic in the country already thinks about both Arkansas and the law.

One would like to think that even those who did not believe the president should have been impeached would find his disbarment a commensurate punishment for his brazen contempt for a court -- and for the whole judicial process.

To quote the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman, disbarring the president "would foreclose any possibility of his spending his twilight years as a well-paid figurehead at a prestigious law firm.'' But beyond that, disbarment "would affirm the importance of honesty in the (legal) profession, signal that transgressions against the law carry a price, and emphasize that political popularity is not enough to escape justice.'' Call it a simple measure of respect for the law.

There's a way for Arkansas to send such a message to the nation: Disbar the shyster.

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