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Trial Judge in Jones Case, a Republican Appointee, Has Long Known Clinton

By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29 1997; Page A11

The judge presiding over the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit has known Bill Clinton for decades, but there is little in that long history to predict how she will handle the potentially explosive case against the president if it comes to trial.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock already has handled several high-profile legal issues arising from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of the Clintons' failed Whitewater real estate investment – sometimes coming down on the side of the president and his wife, but just as often ruling against them.

Wright quashed a document subpoena Starr issued to the White House in one matter, for example, but agreed to his request that Susan McDougal, the Clintons' partner in the real estate venture, be jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the matter.

Wright was a student in an admiralty law course Clinton taught at the University of Arkansas in the early 1970s, but she challenged him over her grade in the course. She got involved in Clinton's first political race in 1974, but it was to work for his opponent, Republican Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt.

Like most of the state and federal judges in Little Rock, Wright traveled in some of the same legal circles as the Clintons, particularly Hillary Rodham Clinton, another of Arkansas' distinguished female lawyers. But Wright, 48, is a conservative Republican. She was appointed to the federal bench in 1990 by President George Bush.

Bill Clinton, as governor, appointed Wright's husband, Robert R. Wright, to a special temporary position as chief justice of the state Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a Clinton political rival convicted of expense account fraud. The court upheld the conviction.

Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet, an expert in judicial ethics, said Wright's long acquaintance with Clinton is no bar to her hearing the Jones lawsuit. Lawyers in the case have not objected to her role.

"The prevailing understanding of judicial ethics would not require a disqualification of a judge because of the previous student-teacher relationship or because of the prior appointment of the husband," Lubet said.

As part of her duties as the judge assigned to supervise federal grand juries in Little Rock, Wright became involved in another case that has made its way to the Supreme Court.

In a sealed ruling last year that became public only this spring, Wright decided that White House lawyers were not required to give Starr notes of conversations with Hillary Clinton. Her ruling was overturned by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the White House is petitioning the high court to consider the case.

Since ordering Susan McDougal jailed on a contempt of court citation last September for refusing to testify before the grand jury investigating Whitewater, Wright has rejected two motions to grant McDougal's release.

Starr wants to question McDougal about the president's knowledge of a fraudulent $300,000 loan. McDougal, convicted of bank fraud last year, has refused to testify, asserting Starr is out to get the Clintons. She contends Starr will charge her with perjury if she tells a grand jury she knows of no wrongdoing by them.

Wright last summer presided over a Whitewater-related trial and issued another ruling politically damaging to the White House.

Two Perry County, Ark., bankers were accused of violating banking laws at the behest of the 1990 Clinton gubernatorial campaign, which kept its account at the bank. In a ruling during the trial, Wright found campaign treasurer Bruce Lindsey, now a White House lawyer and Clinton's closest political confidant, to be an unindicted co-conspirator in the government's case. The bankers were acquitted by a jury.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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