Justices take dim view of Starr's case against Hubbell

Some remarks indicate disapproval of action against man with immunity

February 23, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Several Supreme Court justices strongly implied yesterday that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr might have gone too far in building a tax-evasion case against Webster L. Hubbell, a former associate attorney general and longtime friend of the Clintons.

Those justices reacted with dismay to Starr's use of information from documents handed over by Hubbell, who had been promised legal immunity.

Hubbell was forced to turn over the records and vouch for their authenticity.

Hubbell's lawyer, John W. Nields Jr., helped fuel the justices' skepticism by arguing that Starr prosecuted the case only because Hubbell had told the truth under a promise of immunity from prosecution.

Hubbell told grand jurors that the records he had turned over were his and were the ones that Starr had demanded in a subpoena for business records.

Those compelled admissions by Hubbell, Nields argued, were a form of testimony against himself because they validated evidence that Starr previously did not know existed.

That "tainted" all the contents of the documents, so none should have been used against him, Nields contended.

Though Starr's office fared well in other cases reaching the Supreme Court during his prolonged investigation of President Clinton and his associates, the prospects do not appear good for the prosecutor to win what is likely to be the last of his cases to go before the justices.

Starr has resigned from the special prosecutor's job. His successor is winding down the investigation, with no indication that other cases will be filed.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy expressed concern yesterday about the lengthy questioning of Hubbell before a grand jury about his documents.

Kennedy said that by perhaps pressuring the witness into saying something against himself, the interrogation "raised a very serious problem of prosecutorial overreaching."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told a lawyer for Starr's office, "It was only by virtue of the production of the documents, under an immunity grant, that you learned the facts that enabled you to carry out the prosecution."

Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that forcing Hubbell to turn over his records when Starr suspected him of tax evasion was no different from a prosecutor's demand that a murder suspect turn over, as evidence against himself, "the gun you used to commit the crime."

Whatever the outcome of the case, it will not change the sentence Hubbell faces. He has pleaded guilty to tax evasion on condition that his plea will be wiped out if Starr loses the case in court.

Hubbell was sentenced to one year of probation as the only sentence for the tax-evasion plea and for a separate guilty plea on charges of concealing information from federal agencies.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.