Finding a punishment that will fit the crime

Contempt: Judge Wright's ruling relates to

April 14, 1999

THE ISSUE of proportionality looms large in Judge Susan Webber Wright's citation of President Clinton for civil contempt of court. It was missing in the impeachment of the president.

Mr. Clinton's testimony in Paula Jones' lawsuit about whether he had ever been alone with Monica Lewinsky was intentionally false and misleading, regardless of the definition of "sexual relations." The judge agreed that his aggravation with what he considered a politically inspired lawsuit may have been justified, but deception was not his proper recourse.

Judge Wright ruled that Mr. Clinton must pay expenses to the court and to Paula Jones' former attorneys, and face a reference to the Arkansas Supreme Court that could lead to his disbarment. She also said she was "obliged to use the least possible power adequate to the end proposed in selecting contempt sanctions and will base the imposition of sanctions on a principle of proportionality . . ."

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, in launching a massive criminal investigation of the same conduct; the House of Representatives in impeaching the president; and half the senators in voting to remove him from office all used the most possible power. They threw proportionality to the winds.

Judge Wright's citation was not needed to show that President Clinton let down the nation and tarnished his place in history with tawdry private behavior. But it is a fitting last word.

The same is true of a jury's verdict in an unrelated case. Susan McDougal was found not guilty of obstructing justice in Mr. Starr's investigation of old Arkansas land deals. The jury deadlocked on whether she was criminally guilty of contempt for refusal to testify.

She has served 18 months' "civil" punishment for that. In deciding whether to retry that part of the case, Mr. Starr should let well enough alone and allow Ms. McDougal to walk into private life, her debts to society paid.

The dignity of the nation is the loser in all this. There are no winners.

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