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Disbar Clinton, panel urges

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The Arkansas committee's recommendation, which the president will fight, arises from the Paula Jones case.

A disciplinary committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court recommended Monday that President Clinton be disbarred because of his "serious misconduct" in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

The panel, the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct, concluded that Clinton should receive the most severe sanction _ the loss of his state license to practice law _ for providing false testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Under the committee rules, the disbarment recommendation will now be considered by a Pulaski County circuit judge in Little Rock, who will oversee any disbarment proceedings. If the judge decides to disbar Clinton, the president can appeal that decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Clinton said in an interview broadcast Monday night that he would vigorously defend himself but that he would not participate in disbarment proceedings in Arkansas. Clinton said he had promised the American people after the impeachment trial ended that he would not "personally involve" himself in such matters until he left office.

"It's not right," he said in an NBC News interview.

"The only reason I agreed even to appeal it is that my lawyers look at all the precedents and they said there's no way in the world, if they just treat you like everybody else has been treated, that this is even close to that kind of case," Clinton said. "So the precedents contradict this decision and ultimately the decision has to be made by a judge. And so we're going to give the judge a chance to do what we believe is right, and I think that's the right thing to do."

Clinton had argued this month that his 20 years of public service should persuade the panel to be lenient and not impose any sanction harsher than a reprimand. He also insisted again that he did not technically lie before a federal judge in the Jones case. The president maintained that his answers under oath denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky were technically accurate.

Last year, Clinton was the first president to be held in contempt of court by a federal judge. The president could avoid the disbarment proceedings if he voluntarily surrendered his Arkansas law license, but his personal lawyer, David Kendall, rejected that option Monday.

"This recommendation is wrong and clearly contradicted by precedent," Kendall said. "We will vigorously dispute it in a court of law."

The panel's decision moves Clinton one step closer to becoming the first American president to be disbarred while still in office. Richard Nixon was disbarred in July 1976 by the Appellate Division of the New York state Supreme Court on charges of obstruction of justice connected with the Watergate scandal.

The panel's recommendation to disbar Clinton surprised some legal experts, who said it seemed harsh when compared with similar attorney disciplinary cases decided in Arkansas. The committee imposes sanctions on as many as 100 people a year who are licensed to practice law in Arkansas. Only in cases in which a lawyer has stolen money from a client does the seven-member committee typically recommend disbarment, the most severe penalty.

Clinton has not practiced law since the early 1980s, between his first and second terms as governor of Arkansas. And although he has said he does not intend to practice law upon leaving the White House in January, the president, a Yale Law School graduate, has vigorously defended himself against the state disciplinary proceedings. It is not clear what practical effect a disbarment would have on Clinton's career after he leaves the White House.

A White House spokesman declined to comment, referring all questions to Kendall. But White House officials said they were not encouraged about the president's chances after eight of the committee's panelists recused themselves, most of them citing potential conflicts of interest.

Six members of the disciplinary committee heard the president's case Friday. Five are lawyers and the sixth is a retired schoolteacher.

In a letter Monday to the Arkansas Supreme Court's clerk, James A. Neal, the executive director of the disciplinary panel, wrote that disbarment proceedings should begin "against attorney William Jefferson Clinton."

A majority of the committee had concluded "that certain of the attorney's conduct as demonstrated in the complaints constituted serious misconduct in violation" of two rules of the Arkansas Model Rules of Professional Conduct, wrote Neal, whose retirement from the panel was also announced Monday.

On Friday, the committee considered two complaints against the president, one filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative organization in Atlanta, and another by Judge Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided over the case in which Paula Jones accused Clinton of sexual misconduct.

During a January 1998 deposition in that case, Clinton testified under oath that he had not engaged in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Although the president has continued to insist that his answer was "legally accurate," Wright disagreed.

On April 12, 1999, she held the president in contempt, fined him $90,000 and referred the matter to the Arkansas bar committee for possible disciplinary proceedings.

Wright did not suggest a specific penalty. But the Southeastern Legal Foundation had asked that Clinton be disbarred.

"Today, the committee's decision sends a message to the American people that the rules which govern attorney conduct will be enforced," said Matthew J. Glavin, the president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation. "This committee, under tremendous public and political pressure, has done its duty in issuing a serious sanction."