Direct Access: Clinton in Contempt
Monday, April 12, 1999
The federal judge in the Paula Jones case ruled President Clinton in contempt of court Monday for giving "intentionally false" testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The civil ruling came hours after a jury in Little Rock, Ark., found Susan McDougal innocent of obstructing the Whitewater probe.
What do today's legal developments mean for Clinton – and for Kenneth W. Starr, who testifies before Congress Wednesday about the future of the independent counsel law? The Washington Post's Peter Baker, on leave from the White House beat to write a book about the impeachment of the president, answered reader questions during a live online discussion this evening.
Williamsburg, VA: What are the legal ramifications for this contempt charge after the president leaves office?
Peter Baker: It may take a while to sort through all the various ramifications. The most immediate seems likely to be disbarment proceedings, which don't need to wait until he's out of office. Because it's a civil finding, Clinton's not in danger of any criminal consequences directly, although it's conceivable Ken Starr could cite it if he decides to indict at some point.
Fairfax Station, VA: Mr. Baker, with Judge Wright's contempt ruling that says Bill Clinton gave "intentionally false testimony," aren't the Republican House managers hereby vindicated? And doesn't this ruling prove that Democrats put their own partisan interests first and foremost, and that they politically subverted the impeach process and thereby the Constitution?
Peter Baker: That will certainly be the conclusion many people draw and will undoubtedly spark a lively national debate. Of course, what many Democrats would tell you is that they agreed that Clinton gave false testimony, but they decided to vote against removal because in their view the punishment did not fit the crime.
Charlottesville, VA: Was this the first time a president has been held in contempt of court?
Peter Baker: As far as I know, it sure is. If anyone knows differently, I'd like to know about it. No other president has ever been forced to testify as a defendant in a civil case, let alone as a target of a criminal grand jury.
Eagle, NE: How likely do you think it is that Clinton will lose his license to practice law in Arkansas? Could he then practice law in other states, if he lost his license in Arkansas?
Peter Baker: It would be impossible to judge at this point how likely President Clinton is to lose his law license, although a recommendation from a federal judge is sure to carry a good deal of weight with the authorities who will make that decision. My guess is Clinton would probably never practice law anywhere after leaving office in any event (he never has before), so the impact is rather more symbolic than practical.
Washington, DC: Will Clinton appeal Judge Wright's ruling? Perhaps I'm misremembering the law, but it seems to me that civil contempt -- which is designed to coerce compliance with a court's ruling -- may be inappropriate in a case that has since been settled. Your thoughts?
Peter Baker: My understanding is the White House is not commenting tonight. He could appeal, but the judges on the appeals court during oral arguments last fall already indicated that thought sanctions might be in order. He might decide as a political matter to accept the ruling in order not to prolong the issue.
Bethesda, MD: Do you think that the judge's ruling was an attempt to give the country some sense that Clinton will be punished for his transgressions, without the ultimate punishment of removal from office?
Peter Baker: Hard to say. The judge has never expressed her opinion about whether impeachment was an appropriate response or not and in fact waited to proceed with the contempt issue until after the Senate trial was over to avoid playing any role in it. In any case, she has made clear she was offended at the president's testimony in her own presence and felt he needed to be held accountable in some fashion
San Diego, CA: Can this contempt finding allow Paula Jones to reopen her case, since that could be considered "new evidence," or is she stuck because it was settled?
Peter Baker: At this point, the Jones case is over. The contempt ruling may have been helpful had she gone forward with her appeal of Judge Wright's dismissal of the lawsuit. But the settlement means she has withdrawn her case and I don't believe there's any way she could change that at this point.
Columbus, OH: What are the implications of the acquittal of Susan McDougal for Kenneth Starr? That is, does the acquittal constitute a public repudiation of Ken Starr?
Peter Baker: Again, much like the earlier question, that's a conclusion many will certainly draw. There certainly is an irony in the president being cited for contempt on the same day a jury refused to find Susan McDougal guilty of the same offense (albeit criminal, rather than civil).
Does the President's legal defense fund have a large enough stockpile to pay the figure the Jones lawyers will ask for in reimbursement? And if so, do you believe the president will appeal or officially question this decision?
Peter Baker: You raise a good question. The president's lawyers concluded that he could not use his legal defense fund to pay the $850,000 settlement because the organization's bylaws only permitted the money raised to be spent on his own legal expenses. Therefore, it might follow that those funds cannot be used to pay any court-ordered penalty as well.
College Park, MD: In light of the contempt charge, will William Jefferson Clinton ever admit to "lying" in the Paula Jones lawsuit and in front of Starr's grand jury? Also, is the "right wing conspiracy" theory still credible?
Peter Baker: Only President Clinton knows the answer to that, of course. His lawyers have said that the president genuinely does not believe that he lied; any change in that position at this point theoretically could make him more vulnerable to a criminal charge of perjury from Ken Starr.
Somewhere, USA: Why did Judge Wright wait so long to make her ruling? The grounds were crystal clear months ago, and everyone from Senator Byrd to Katherine Graham knew it. Why now?
Peter Baker: Again, only Judge Wright would know for sure. She did say that she did not want to deal with the issue while the Senate trial was ongoing. One of the lawyers in the case speculated this evening that she took this long because she was wrestling in her own mind with the rather weighty issues. After all, she apparently is the first judge in history to cite a president for contempt of court and I imagine you don't do that lightly.
San Diego, CA: Could something similar happen with the grand jury, i.e., could they also find him in contempt and ask him to repay some of Ken Starr's expenses to the taxpayers? Or is that a totally different process?
Peter Baker: It's a totally different process. The grand jury that heard the evidence in the Lewinsky case has now disbanded, so they cannot do anything. However, the forewoman of that grand jury said in recent interviews with The Post and other news organizations that she would have voted to indict the president for perjury had Starr asked, although she did not believe he deserved to be removed from office.
Lincoln, NE: Given Starr's poor record of obtaining any convictions in cases related to Clinton, do you think Starr will do the decent thing and resign?
Peter Baker: Well, actually, Starr actually has obtained far more convictions and other victories in court than he has lost. The McDougal outcome today is significant in part because Starr rarely loses these cases. However, it's true that the Lewinsky case has not produced any convictions for him; the only person he has charged is Julie Hiatt Steele, who goes on trial in May. As for Starr resigning, people close to him suggest he would love to return to the private sector, but is wary given that the last time he tried (in 1997) he stirred a lot of criticism for abandoning his post.
Somewhere, USA: It is my understanding that President Clinton was once the attorney general for the state of Arkansas. If this is in fact true, he has practiced law in the past. Therefore, the chances of the president practicing law in the future could be more than practical than you think.
Peter Baker: You are absolutely correct that he was attorney general of Arkansas. He was also a law school professor. By practice, I meant as a regular lawyer who bills clients, appears in court, etc. (as Hillary Clinton did for many years). The attorney general, of course, is a political office. None of Clinton's friends or advisers to my knowledge believe he wants to practice law after leaving office.
Williamsburg, VA: Would President Clinton have to attend the hearing where Judge Wright hands down the punishment?
Peter Baker: No, at this point, she already has done that and did not choose to hold a hearing. Under her order, the president could request a hearing to contest her finding, although it seems highly unlikely he would attend even if he did. Lawyers would no doubt handle that. The disposition of the exact amount he would have to pay also could be handled through lawyers, probably through written briefs.
Jefferson, MD: How did Judge Wright reach her conclusion without giving Bill Clinton a hearing? Or was a hearing held and kept under wraps?
Peter Baker: This was covered a bit in the last answer. She did not hold a hearing and did not have to. Judges have broad discretion in contempt proceedings and can make a finding on their own initiative. Indeed, since Judge Wright was present when the president committed the actions she cited (i.e. his deposition), she presumably decided she needed no further fact-finding.
Havre, MT: How will this ruling affect the president's ability to conduct the war against Milosevic? Is his credibility further eroded?
Peter Baker: That's a question that will have to be sorted out in the days to come. But most Americans, and most members of Congress, long ago came to their own conclusions about Clinton's credibility vis a vis his testimony.
Washington, DC: What do you think is a reasonable timeline for Ken Starr to finish the entire investigation? Has Starr given any indication of a closing date? Does Ken Starr have a future as Washington attorney-lobbyist, or is his reputation too tarnished?
Peter Baker: Ken Starr's aides have said his office may still be around through the end of Clinton's presidency; in addition to Julie Hiatt Steele and any retrial of McDougal, he still has the Webb Hubbell case to prosecute and will write a final report. As for his future, it's probably safe to conclude (as his friends say he has) that he will never serve on the Supreme Court as he once dreamed. The Pepperdine law school deanship is now filled and out of his reach as well. But his old law firm has said he is welcome to return there.
washingtonpost.com: That was our last question for Peter Baker this evening. We appreciate his time. And many thanks to you for your questions. Good night.
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