William H. Ginsburg, a seasoned medical malpractice lawyer who bolted to national prominence in the brutal arena of Washington politics as Monica Lewinsky’s attorney, died April 1 at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He was 70.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter-in-law Virginia Ginsburg.
In 1998, Mr. Ginsburg was a senior partner in a Beverly Hills medical malpractice firm, where he had a sterling track record defending unpopular clients. He represented the physician accused of covering up the cause of entertainer Liberace’s death from AIDS and the cardiologist who examined Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers just before the young player’s sudden death during a game.
He also defended a Glendale hospital in a case that wound up helping to establish the foundation for a patient’s right to die.
Mr. Ginsburg’s friendship with Lewinsky’s physician father landed him in the middle of the biggest scandal to hit Washington since Watergate.
Lewinsky was the former White House intern who found herself in legal jeopardy when she was accused of lying under oath about having sex with President Bill Clinton.
Shortly after the scandal broke in January 1998, Mr. Ginsburg agreed to represent her but quickly became a target himself, drawing barbs from prominent critics accusing him of amateurish missteps, including his early failure to secure immunity for his client.
On Feb. 1, 1998, he set a record for appearing on all five major Sunday political talk shows, fueling criticism that he was making too many public statements, including some that appeared to undermine Lewinsky’s credibility.
She avoided prosecution but not a grand jury appearance, during which she gave eyebrow-raising testimony about Clinton, a blue dress and a cigar.
Mr. Ginsburg said he would have relished the chance to take on independent counsel Kenneth Starr in front of the public and a jury. But after half a year in the media glare, he turned Lewinsky over to a new defense team that included lawyers Plato Cacheris and Jacob Stein and returned to his private practice with a sense of relief.
“If you submitted the entire Bible to the press and one page had the word ‘sex’ printed on it, the press would focus on that word, rather than the other wonderful truths that we find in that book,” he told the Los Angeles Times after leaving Washington in June 1998.
A lawyer’s son, William Ginsburg was born in Philadelphia on March 25, 1943, and moved to Los Angeles with his family in the early 1950s. He studied political science and drama at the University of California at Berkeley and received a law degree from the University of Southern California in 1967.
Among his first clients were conscientious objectors, even though he was then serving in the military as a member of the Army JAG Corps. Later, he represented many of the country’s largest pool and spa builders from lawsuits over swimming accidents, winning the majority of those cases even against the most sympathetic of plaintiffs left with paralysis and other severe injuries.
During his career, Mr. Ginsburg tried more than 300 cases, many of them involving complex medical procedures and vexing issues of liability. None, however, brought him as much attention as the Lewinsky sex scandal. He often referred to his famous client as “poor little Monica” and belittled the forces arrayed against her. “I had to ask myself,” he said on CNN, “ ‘How many FBI agents and U.S. attorneys does it take to handle a 24-year-old girl?’ ”
Later, in an open letter to Starr in California Lawyer magazine, he wrote: “Congratulations, Mr. Starr! As a result of your callous disregard for cherished constitutional rights, you may have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults.”
He bowed out of the case two months before Lewinsky’s grand jury date, saying his public sparring with Starr had diminished his effectiveness.
Mr. Ginsburg appeared unruffled by the many attacks on his legal competence in a hardball criminal case. “Bah, humbug!” he said in the 1998 Times interview. “After you have handled a few high-profile and high-pressure jury trials, then come back and comment. Until then, may I suggest that you curb your tongues and your criticism.”
He retired a few years ago after ending his career as a private mediator and arbitrator.
Survivors include his wife, Laura; three children; his mother; a brother; and two grandchildren.