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Judge Finds Clinton in Contempt of Court

Wright Judge Susan Webber Wright. (Reuters)

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  • Online Discussion: White House Reporter Peter Baker

  • Excerpts From Wright's Order

  • Clinton Won't Seek Recusal of Jones Judge (Washington Post, Feb. 18)

  • Jones Case Judge May Cite Clinton (Washington Post, Feb. 17)

  • By Roberto Suro and Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, April 13, 1999; Page A1

    A federal judge yesterday held President Clinton in contempt of court for giving "intentionally false" testimony about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in the Paula Jones lawsuit, marking the first time that a sitting president has been sanctioned for disobeying a court order.

    In a biting, 32-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Arkansas said Clinton gave "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process" in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit. She specifically cited Clinton's assertions that he was never alone with Lewinsky and that he did not have a sexual relationship with the former White House intern.

    Wright, who personally presided over Clinton's January 1998 deposition in the Jones case, acknowledged that no court had ever taken such action against a president but said it was important to act to "protect the integrity" of the judicial process.

    "Sanctions must be imposed, not only to redress the president's misconduct, 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," she wrote.

    The White House had no comment on the order yesterday, saying it was under review by the president's private attorneys. Clinton's lawyer in the Jones case, Robert S. Bennett, did not return telephone calls last night. Clinton could appeal the order.

    The contempt finding comes two months after the Senate acquitted Clinton on articles of impeachment alleging that he committed perjury in the criminal investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that grew out of the Jones civil case. The impeachment articles also alleged that Clinton sought to obstruct justice in the Jones case by arranging a job for Lewinsky and trying to coach other witnesses to testify falsely.

    The conduct targeted by Wright concerns a charge approved by the House Judiciary Committee but defeated by the full House as it voted to impeach Clinton: that the president lied under oath in the civil lawsuit.

    With the Senate's acquittal, Clinton has sought to put the impeachment proceedings behind him and obtain a measure of vindication. Wright's action yesterday adds the weight of judicial authority to those who contend that Clinton lied under oath and undermines his assertion that he tried to be evasive and misleading, but steered clear of outright lies, in what he thought was a politically inspired lawsuit.

    "This is an unfortunate mark against Clinton as a person, because this is a taint on his integrity," said William and Mary law professor Michael Gerhardt, an expert on the impeachment process. "It obviously could have further implications for his legacy. It might have implications for him as a lawyer."

    In finding that Clinton deliberately lied in the Jones deposition and his written answers to questions posed by her lawyers, Wright ordered Clinton to pay "any reasonable expenses, including attorneys' fees, caused by his willful failure to obey this court's discovery orders." Wright also said Clinton should repay the $1,202 she incurred in traveling to Washington at Clinton's request to oversee the deposition and said she was referring the matter to state judicial authorities in Arkansas who could disbar Clinton for violating the legal profession's rules of conduct.

    Jones accused Clinton of sexually harassing her while he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. The judge approved her lawyers' request to question Clinton about his relationships with government workers, including Lewinsky, in an effort to discover whether others had been subjected to similar behavior. Wright subsequently dismissed the case and said yesterday that decision would not have changed if Clinton had told the truth. After Jones appealed the dismissal, Clinton settled the lawsuit for $850,000 last November, just as Congress began impeachment proceedings.

    "It's the first time in this whole case that he's been held accountable -- and it's a legal ruling, not a political decision," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which helped finance the Jones lawsuit. "It was an important test of whether we're going to have a rule of law. It was an important ruling."

    Wright had the option to order more severe penalties under her civil contempt authority and had the power to summarily find Clinton guilty of criminal contempt.

    Jones's lawyers said yesterday that they are satisfied with the finding of civil contempt. "It appears very sound in its analysis and an appropriate response to the president's wrongdoing," said T. Wesley Holmes, a Dallas attorney who was among those representing Jones in the final stages of the lawsuit.

    Lanny J. Davis, a former White House special counsel, said Wright's action was "highly irregular" and could be subject to appeal on constitutional grounds because a federal judge lacks the authority to sanction a sitting president.

    Wright said in her ruling that she had considered the issue and decided that she had the authority to issue civil contempt sanctions under the reasoning of the Supreme Court's ruling, in Jones v. Clinton, that a sitting president could be subjected to a civil lawsuit involving his conduct before taking office.

    "Certainly the court recognizes," Wright said, "that significant constitutional issues would arise were this court to impose sanctions against the president that impaired his decision-making or otherwise impaired him in the performance of his official duties. No such sanctions will be imposed, however."

    Rory K. Little, a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, said Wright's action is "completely standard. . . . Contempt is always within a judge's powers. Once the president could be hauled into court [because of the Supreme Court ruling], he had to obey the rules."

    Wright, who acted on her own initiative, said she deferred to the impeachment proceedings and waited for them to be completed before addressing the contempt issue.

    She also emphasized important distinctions between the two proceedings. While impeachment is "a constitutional process in which the proper inquiry is the president's fitness to serve in office," she said, a judge's contempt authority "protects the integrity of a court's proceedings and provides a means of enforcement of its orders."

    "The court takes no pleasure whatsoever in holding this nation's president in contempt of court," Wright said. However, Wright warned the president that if he challenged any aspect of the contempt order he would not be able to avoid the "turmoil of evidentiary hearings" and that such hearings would involve "all matters concerning the president's conduct in this lawsuit which may warrant a finding of civil contempt."

    In yesterday's order, Wright said she only addressed matters that "no reasonable person would seriously dispute were in violation of this court's discovery order" and that required no further exploration with fresh evidence or testimony.

    She cited Clinton's response to questions by Jones's lawyers during his deposition on Jan. 17, 1998, when he said he did not remember ever being alone with Lewinsky and claimed, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," the former White House and Pentagon staff member. In his testimony before the Starr grand jury on Aug. 17, he stated that he had been alone with her "from time to time" and acknowledged an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with Lewinsky.

    Wright said there was no need to "engage in extended analysis" of Clinton's statements to determine that his deposition testimony was "intentionally false" and thus liable to the sanction of civil contempt.

    Jesse Choper, law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "There are probably relatively few members of the public who don't feel that he lied. This would just say that [Wright] called him on it."

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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