Anti-climax of justice ends nation's scandal

Clinton, Tripp: After headlines subside, routine working of law suggests that no one is above it.

August 02, 1999

THE FINE levied on President Clinton by federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock, Ark., and the indictment of Linda Tripp by the Howard Country grand jury, treat those two as ordinary Americans subject to the same laws as everyone else.

There was a lot of sound and fury to get there, but it is the proper destination.

Judge Wright's assessment of $89,484.05 on President Clinton was tying up a loose end.

Her basic finding was a civil contempt order last April, holding that Mr. Clinton had given "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process." He did that in a deposition in Paula Jones' lawsuit, which Judge Wright journeyed to Washington to hear.

Judge Wright had already ruled on the scope of testimony required from Mr. Clinton about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, in the lawsuit concerning his treatment of Ms. Jones years earlier. That was not at issue.

Mr. Clinton was obliged to testify truthfully and did not. Judge Wright's finding of civil contempt was the harshest judgment against Mr. Clinton that sticks. Unlike impeachment, it is proportional to the infraction discussed.

Mr. Clinton has settled Ms. Jones' lawsuit for $850,000, without admitting wrongdoing. Now he must compensate her attorneys for costs they incurred as a result of his false testimony. The amount Judge Wright approved is much less than they sought and more than his lawyer offered.

Linda Tripp must be prosecuted because she obtained vast national publicity for violating Maryland law that forbids recording telephone conversations without permission of both parties.

Others have been prosecuted for this. If someone can so prominently flout the law, it has no meaning and should not be enforced against anyone. Maryland had no choice but to prosecute.

So this is a supremely nonpolitical action. It makes no judgment on Ms. Tripp's role leading to the impeachment. It does show that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grant of immunity in return for wiring her to trap Ms. Lewinsky applied to federal but not Maryland law. The issue is not why Linda Tripp did it, but whether she knew it was illegal.

The impeachment deservedly failed. Now the law is working at its own pace and as it would against anyone else. You wouldn't want it any other way.

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