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Contempt of country

National | Clinton's contempt citation is not just a legal issue

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

President Clinton has said he feels no shame over his impeachment and trial in Congress. He blames those proceedings on Republican partisanship. He will have more difficulty spinning the public and historians over Judge Susan Webber Wright's contempt citation, the first sanction of a sitting president for disobeying a court order. Judge Wright said the president is in contempt of her court "for his willful failure to obey this court's discovery orders" in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. She hinted that she could have found the president in criminal contempt, but withheld pursuing such a judgment "in order to prevent any potential double-jeopardy issues from arising" in connection with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of the president. She said she waited until after the impeachment and trial before deciding in favor of civil contempt so as not to influence the impeachment proceedings. But by withholding her decision, it can be argued that she, in fact, did influence those proceedings. An earlier ruling might have provided additional weight to the impeachment articles. Contempt is not just a legal term. Its definition gets to the heart of the character of the person who demonstrates contemptuousness toward the law and the courts: "the state of mind of one who despises; disdain; lack of respect; willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge, or legislative body." This president has performed the hat trick, demonstrating disrespect for all three-a court, a judge, and the federal legislature. President Clinton's Houdini-like twists and turns to escape the clutches of legal accountability in the Paula Jones case date back to 1994. On Aug. 10 of that year, three months after Mrs. Jones filed her sexual harassment complaint, the president's attorneys moved to dismiss it on grounds of immunity. Judge Wright denied the claim. The president's attorneys next claimed he couldn't be sued while in office. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that contention. In August 1997, the court dismissed Mrs. Jones's defamation claim, along with a number of other assertions, but concluded her remaining claims allowed for completion of discovery and the filing of motions. It was at a hearing in Washington on Jan. 12, 1998, that the court first heard the name of Monica Lewinsky. And it was at that hearing that the president lied under oath when he contended he was never alone with Miss Lewinsky and that he did not have a sexual relationship with the White House intern. Because Judge Wright's contempt citation was civil and not criminal, Kenneth Starr is still free to pursue a criminal contempt charge after the president leaves office, if Mr. Starr chooses to do so. Judge Wright addressed this administration's view that "anything goes" in pursuit of its own interests. She wrote: "Certainly the president's aggravation with what he considered a 'politically inspired lawsuit' may well have been justified, although the court makes no findings in that regard.... [But] the president never challenged the legitimacy of plaintiff's lawsuit ... and it simply is not acceptable to employ deceptions and falsehoods in an attempt to obstruct the judicial process." So that's two strikes against the president for the historians to consider: Strike 1, he is only the second president to be impeached; strike 2, he is the first sitting president to be found in contempt of court. He lied under oath, something that ought not to be tolerated for any citizen. President Clinton is guilty not only of contempt of court. He is guilty of contempt of country.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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