WASHINGTON - An ethics committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court voted yesterday to ask a state judge to remove President Clinton's license to practice law in the state.
In a split decision, the six-member panel said its majority had found "serious misconduct" by Clinton - an apparent reference to his sworn testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against him.
In that testimony, Clinton denied that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The panel's action marked the first time in history that a president who was a lawyer would face a possible disbarment while in office.
Richard M. Nixon was disbarred after he resigned as president after the Watergate scandal a quarter-century ago.
Though Clinton has not actively practiced law for years, he values his license highly.
The president has had his law license in Arkansas since 1973; he has renewed it regularly.
In an interview with NBC News last night, Clinton said he would not go to Arkansas to defend his license while he remains president, leaving it to his private lawyer.
"This decision contradicts all the cases on point that the committee has ever decided in the past," Clinton said in the interview.
His legal aides say the president will have a strong claim that he was facing disbarment for conduct that would not lead to the same discipline for a private person.
David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney, said in a statement: "This recommendation is wrong and clearly contradicted by precedent.
"We will vigorously dispute it in a court of law."
Under the state's attorney discipline procedures, the committee's disbarment proposal will be heard first by a county circuit court judge. Any ruling by the judge can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Ordinarily, there is no appeal beyond a state's highest court.
The action by the state court's Committee on Professional Conduct, citing Clinton for "serious misconduct" but without specifying what it meant, is the latest setback to the president resulting from his testimony in the Jones case.
Clinton's sworn denial of an affair with Lewinsky also led to efforts in Congress to oust him as president through impeachment.
Early last year, the Senate acquitted Clinton of impeachment charges brought by the House.
In addition, the federal judge who handled the Jones lawsuit, Susan Webber Wright of Little Rock, ruled last year that Clinton was in civil contempt of court for his "false, misleading and evasive" testimony.
The Arkansas disbarment proceeding might not be the last of Clinton's legal woes.
Robert W. Ray, the independent counsel who is investigating the president, said last month that a possible criminal charge against Clinton remains an "open matter" and there could be action on it after the president leaves office early next year.
The committee's order, written in highly technical legal language, said the panel was acting on the basis of two formal complaints against Clinton and "the finding by the majority of the committee" that Clinton had engaged in "serious misconduct in violation" of state ethical rules.
The committee had a daylong meeting Friday, then issued its order yesterday in the form of a report to the state Supreme Court.
It did not disclose the vote of the six-member panel - made up of five attorneys and a retired teacher.
The committee ordinarily has 14 members, but eight had disqualified themselves because of past ties to Clinton.
Kendall, the president's lawyer, had vigorously fought a potential disbarment recommendation by the ethics committee, but the attorney's legal defense of Clinton has not been made public.
It is understood, however, that Kendall suggested that, at most, the committee should reprimand Clinton.
One of the two formal complaints to the ethics committee was by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group.
Its president, Matthew J. Glavin, said yesterday that the disbarment recommendation is "confirmation that the legal system will police its own, regardless of the position held by the attorney in question."
He praised the ethics committee for doing its duty "under tremendous public and political pressure."
The second complaint the committee considered was by Judge Wright.
After she found Clinton to be in civil contempt of court for his testimony in the Jones case, she imposed a penalty of $90,686 and then referred the matter to the ethics panel.
Clinton did not challenge the ruling and paid the penalty.
Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.