WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Arkansas found President Clinton in contempt of court yesterday for giving "intentionally false" testimony last year when he told Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers that he did not have "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky -- and could not even recall being alone with her.
The ruling -- the first time a president has been found in contempt of court -- branded the only elected president ever to be impeached with yet another blemish for the history books. And it comes two months after Clinton's impeachment acquittal in the Senate, a vote he had hoped would bury all questions of his legal and sexual impropriety.
Republicans said the ruling will make it far more difficult for the president and his allies to portray the Republican-led impeachment drive as a partisan vendetta with no merit. Indeed, Judge Susan Webber Wright echoed the language of House impeachment prosecutors when she castigated "the chief law enforcement officer of this nation" for undermining "the integrity of the judicial system."
Moreover, Jones' lawyers claim the ruling will provide them with a new legal weapon with which to pursue the president. And it comes as Clinton is enmeshed in the most serious foreign policy conflict of his presidency, the air war over Yugoslavia.
"You don't like to see a president held in contempt, but we thought we got robbed [when Jones' suit was dismissed] because the president didn't tell the truth," said John Whitehead, an attorney with the Rutherford Institute who helped spearhead the Jones sexual misconduct suit.
Wright's 32-page citation, for civil rather than criminal contempt, orders Clinton to pay Jones "any reasonable expenses including attorneys' fees caused by his willful failure to obey this court's discovery orders." Clinton was also ordered to reimburse Wright for the $1,202 she and a law clerk spent in traveling to Washington last year "to preside over his tainted deposition."
The citation was forwarded to the Arkansas Supreme Court's committee on professional conduct to determine if Clinton should be barred from practicing law in his home state. Abraham A. Dash, a legal ethics professor at the University of Maryland, said lawyers who have perjured themselves in court are routinely disbarred.
Clinton has 30 days to respond to the ruling. The Jones lawyers have 20 days to submit claims for fees and expenses connected with the Lewinsky matter.
The judge also said her decision to dismiss the Jones case a year ago would not have changed, even if the president had been "truthful with respect to his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky."
But "it is difficult to construe the president's sworn statements in this civil lawsuit concerning his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky as anything other than a willful refusal to obey this court's discovery orders," Wright concluded after reviewing Clinton's Jan. 17, 1998, deposition.
"Simply put, the president's deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false."
Robert S. Bennett, the president's personal lawyer in the Jones case, issued a terse statement declining to comment until he had "had the opportunity to review the matter fully."
Though her language was scathing, Wright claimed that she was showing restraint and deference to the president, specifically citing the crisis in Yugoslavia in saying she will be flexible if Clinton's lawyers decide to challenge the ruling.
She wrote that she had "fully considered" whether to hold Clinton in criminal contempt of court, but said such a severe finding could consume the president's time.
"Significant constitutional issues would arise were this court to impose sanctions against the president that impaired his decision-making or otherwise impaired him in the performance of his official duties," said Wright, who once was a law student of Clinton's at the University of Arkansas and was appointed to the bench by President George Bush.
Wright also conceded that any additional penalties must take into account that Clinton's contemptuous conduct occurred in a case that had been dismissed "as lacking in merit" and that was ultimately settled for $850,000, more than Jones originally sought when she filed suit.
But, she said, after watching Clinton admit on national television Aug. 17 that he had indeed had "an inappropriate intimate" relationship with Lewinsky, she believed she had no choice but to act.
"Sanctions must be imposed, not only to redress the misconduct of the president in this case, but to deter others who, having observed the president's televised address to the nation in which his defiance of this court's discovery orders were revealed, might themselves consider emulating the president of the United States," she wrote.