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Judge Susan Webber Wright/TWP
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright
(By Morris Richardson for
The Washington Post)

Clinton Judge Has In-House Counsel

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page A01

LITTLE ROCK—Last spring, when lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit met with U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, the judge presiding in the case, they were joined in the closed meeting by a surprising observer -- the judge's husband, Robert R. Wright, a law professor.

Some of the lawyers privately told colleagues they were stunned by his presence. But many other lawyers here -- none of whom would go on the record -- believe Robert Wright plays a significant role in his wife's decision-making, and he does not dispute it.

Susan Wright could be the first judge in history to try a sitting president, and a two-hour conversation with her husband provided considerable insight into the thinking of the 49-year-old federal judge, now so wary of the press herself that in a terse written statement last week she asked that reporters no longer call her office.

Over lunch last week, Robert Wright said he was not speaking for his wife but made it clear that they discuss the matters before her and that he has offered her suggestions for her rulings. He described his wife as having confronted the reality of her role and its possible implications for President Clinton when she recently had to fight to get to her car through a mob of reporters. The frenzied scene so disturbed her, he said, that she has asked the U.S. marshals for extra federal protection, including an escort to and from work.

"Different things rattle different people," said Robert Wright, her husband of 15 years. "When she couldn't get into her car, it completely unnerved her."

In interviews with nearly three dozen lawyers here who have practiced before her on cases unrelated to Clinton, Wright wins wide praise for her competence and evenhandedness. They say Wright tends to veer toward a safe middle ground, studiously avoiding setting precedent, making law or setting social policy. In fact, her decision two weeks ago to bar any evidence about Monica S. Lewinsky, with whom Clinton is alleged to have had a sexual relationship, from the Jones case is viewed by many as her boldest decision in eight years on the bench.

Robert Wright said that ruling was meant to signal that his wife will block attempts to turn the Paula Jones trial into a symposium on the president's personal life. "She is not going to permit just a parade of women from coming through her court," he said. "She is going to keep it pretty tight."

"All reports indicate that his advances [toward Lewinsky] were not unwelcome -- that they were consensual, which is not what Paula Jones is alleging," said Wright, 66, the Donaghey Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas law school at Little Rock.

Robert Wright said he believed his wife would limit evidence on Clinton's personal life "to women who worked for the state or federal government" who may have been the subject of unwanted advances from Clinton.

"From what I've heard, a lot of Bill Clinton's women have been satisfied customers," he added.

Since being assigned to the Jones case four years ago, Wright has been criticized by Republicans for rulings that they say go too easy on Clinton and by Democrats who say the appointee of President George Bush favors Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Many observers think she will rule shortly on a motion by Robert S. Bennett, the president's lawyer, to move the trial up from its May 27 date.

Wright is also under enormous pressure these days on other fronts. She is overseeing the complicated Little Rock school desegregation effort. And she has been criticized by legal observers for keeping convicted felon Susan McDougal, one of Clinton's partners in the original Whitewater land deal, imprisoned for 17 months for McDougal's continued refusal to testify about the president.

As the judge in the Jones case, she has been faulted by legal observers for failing to enforce her own gag order despite flagrant and now routine leaks.

Within days of the president's deposition Jan. 17, for example, there were reports that he had admitted for the first time to an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Clinton's testimony about his relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky also became public. And here in Little Rock, one local lawyer for a woman deposed by Jones's attorneys filed a formal sealed complaint with Wright two months ago when reporters obtained his client's name. One source said Wright never responded.

"In private she has fussed to the lawyers about the leaks," said Robert Wright. "A judge doesn't have the resources . . . any investigators to plug the leaks . . . to find out who's talking. . . . The gag order has served one useful purpose: to prevent the lawyers from commenting on the substance on TV."

Robert Wright said he helped his wife in a key ruling she made in the early stages of the Jones case -- that it should not go to trial until after Clinton has left office. The Supreme Court overturned the ruling last May. "I wrote her a written memorandum on the history involved, some of which she used in her ruling," he said.

Some lawyers take issue with the judge's decision to keep Susan McDougal in jail -- a decision she made in her capacity as the supervising judge of the Whitewater grand jury -- when McDougal is clearly not going to change her mind. The lawyers note that after 17 months, imprisonment becomes punitive rather than coercive.

"It's personal and it's vindictive," says Bill Henley, McDougal's brother.

A lawyer involved in the case agreed, saying that Wright has privately evidenced only contempt for Susan McDougal.

But Robert Wright responds: "Susan McDougal tends to lie. Susan McDougal is still in jail because someone has persuaded Susan Wright -- maybe Ken Starr -- that she still might talk."

In fact, Susan Wright's Democratic detractors say her hard-line position on McDougal is just one example of how the judge's rulings tend to serve the independent prosecutor's interests. She has dealt with Starr while presiding over one major Whitewater trial, as well as in her role as the supervising judge of the grand jury.

These Democratic critics say that while the Lewinsky ruling does benefit Clinton, it came about only after Starr filed a motion complaining that Jones's lawyers were interfering with Starr's criminal investigation of whether Clinton lied in his Jones deposition by denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. In addition, these critics, who asked not to be identified, are convinced that Wright's original ruling that Clinton should not be tried while in office was based on her desire not to interfere with Starr's ongoing investigation of the Clintons and the Whitewater land deal.

Robert Wright, however, believes that his wife has been fair to the president in her rulings. "Clinton should be pretty happy with her," he said.

Susan Wright joined the bench in 1990, after a career in academia.

Lawyers who practice before her say that she tends to share personal experiences in court, which some find endearing and others grating. She will, for example, offer a detailed explanation of why she is recessing -- whether it's for a birthday lunch or business meeting -- something her clerks say is merely a courtesy to the jury. But one prominent litigator here said, "There's just too much talking from the bench in that court."

Last week, during a hearing to reduce the sentence of a state's witness, Wright decided to do the math herself, longhand, while the court silently waited on her. After a few minutes of intense figuring on her part, she announced her calculation. Participants in the hearing politely told her she was 100 months off.

Susan Webber was born and raised in Texarkana, a small Arkansas town on the Texas border. The product of a long line of prominent local lawyers -- father, uncle, grandfather -- she was raised in a traditional southern Democratic household.

Her husband said she started out as a Democrat herself in the 1960s, working on a couple of local campaigns.

She interned for then-Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.) in the early 1970s, and was there in 1974 when he was unsuccessfully challenged by a political newcomer named Bill Clinton.

In the 1980s, both Wrights were active George Bush supporters; she led Lawyers for Bush in Arkansas during his 1988 campaign.

Wright's father died when she was still a teenager, so she worked her way through Randolph-Macon Woman's College and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she received a master's degree in public administration and a law degree. "She waitressed, worked in laundry -- she worked very hard her whole life," said her husband.

Susan Wright's first encounter with Clinton came in the mid-1970s, when she took an admiralty law course taught by him at Arkansas. In what has become a legendary story, Clinton lost a pile of exams -- including Wright's -- and offered all his students a B+. Wright refused -- desiring to maintain her A average -- and asked to take a different exam.

But she had to negotiate with Clinton's fiancee, Hillary Rodham, also teaching at the school, according to Robert Wright, because Clinton was already out campaigning. She ultimately got her A -- and went on to become the first woman to serve as editor of the school's law review.

Hammerschmidt recommended Wright to Bush for the bench, after she had spent some 14 years teaching law at her alma mater.

She is considered an expert in land use. While lawyers say her roots in academia allow her to look at all sides of an issue, they also say she lacks the practical experience of the rigors of private practice.

Those who know her say she is very conscious of any appearance of impropriety. One of her law school classmates who now practices in Little Rock said last week that she even cut off social contact with him after she was appointed to the bench.

Which is why legal observers were stunned when it was revealed last month that Wright met privately with former senator David Pryor (D) about McDougal's incarceration -- a potential ethical violation in a pending case when the other side is not present. Under intense fire for the meeting, she immediately made a public statement saying she regretted seeing Pryor in her chambers.

In an interview, Pryor said that in asking for the appointment he informed Wright's staff that he was coming as an advocate for McDougal. Wright did try to reach him once before the meeting, according to Pryor and Robert Wright.

But at no time, said Pryor, did she leave word that she wanted to cancel the meeting. "I'm not that hard to reach," he said. "She could have refused to see me when I arrived."

Explained Robert Wright: "She asked me what I thought he wanted. And I told her he was going to ask her to release McDougal before Christmas."

"She said, 'Oh, he wouldn't do that.' "

"I told her, 'I've known David Pryor almost since from the time you were born, and that's what he wants,' " recalled Robert Wright.

Pryor did indeed bluntly ask Wright to release McDougal, and she refused to talk about the case and advised him to have McDougal's lawyers file a motion. But it was too late. News of the meeting dominated the local media for weeks.

As for criticism that he is too involved in his wife's business, Robert Wright makes no apologies.

Asked if his presence in her chambers at last spring's closed meeting was inappropriate, Wright said, "No, because I wouldn't talk about it."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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