Taking a stand against Clinton

Outspoken judge denies any bias toward White House

I'm `paid to rule'

July 05, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A single U.S. District Court judge has declared President Clinton in criminal violation of federal law, held two of the president's most esteemed Cabinet secretaries in contempt of court, compared an administration official to "con artists and hooligans," and accused top White House officials of having "run amok."

If former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was Clinton's dogged prosecutor, Royce Lamberth has become his hanging judge, the man whose courtroom has become a chamber of horrors for the White House.

It's not that he has it in for this White House, Lamberth insisted.

"A fairer criticism is whether I'm too hard on the government, not necessarily Bill Clinton," he conceded. "I do think I hold the government to a high standard, and I think all judges should."

Not everyone is so sure of his impartiality. To some, the linguistic sting of Lamberth's rulings and the long leash he has given Clinton's legal pursuers smack of bias.

The Justice Department and the White House have had five lawyers assigned almost exclusively to responding to document requests on one case, a class-action suit filed by former Republican White House aides who say Clinton officials violated their privacy rights by riffling through their FBI files.

Never mind that the so-called "Filegate" case was dropped in March by Starr's successor, Robert Ray, who found no "substantial and credible evidence" of wrongdoing. Before Lamberth's bench, the case continues, sprawling out to include matters as diverse as Kathleen Willey's accusations that Clinton groped her and Linda Tripp's allegations that the Pentagon violated her privacy rights.

Clinton administration lawyers complain that Lamberth has found no lead or accusation too insignificant to pursue.

`Off on these tirades'

Two weeks ago, Lamberth dismissed a motion by Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon to have the Tripp privacy lawsuit given to another judge. Lamberth insisted he had no biases or preconceived notions about the case, even as he decried the government's "dilatory tactics," expressed his "considerable frustration" with the Pentagon and the Justice Department, and denounced the government lawyers' "singularly unhelpful" affidavits.

"Whatever the merits or substance of the case, he goes off on these tirades," said Ira Magaziner, a former senior White House official who has felt the sting of Lamberth's rulings. "He cites no evidence when he does it, and he plays fast and loose with people's reputations."

In fact, it is not so easy to pigeonhole the flamboyant, 56-year-old Texan as a right-wing, anti-Clinton judge. Lamberth is a hero not just to Clinton critics but to dispossessed minority plaintiffs, impoverished Indian tribes, even to distraught parents looking for vengeance on terrorists.

"He's a person you can trust," said Elouise Cobell, a Blackfoot Indian leader who has sought an accounting before Lamberth of billions of dollars lost from the government's allegedly mismanaged Native American trust funds. "We should clone him as a judge."

A blunt jurist

Lamberth is quite blunt about his reputation. "I don't shrink from ruling on things, and I don't shrink from saying what I think is right," he said, chuckling. "Many judges would sugar-coat their language more than I do, and many judges would just gloss over issues that are presented. I just think judges are paid to rule."

When President Ronald Reagan appointed Lamberth to the bench in 1987, Washington lawyers figured his long career as a federal attorney - first with the Army, then as a U.S. attorney and finally as the chief of the Justice Department's civil division - had instilled sympathies for the government's cases. Instead, that career seems to have produced a deep suspicion of federal barristers.

"He knows all the tricks," said Stuart Newberger, a Washington attorney who worked for Lamberth at the Justice Department.

In March, Lamberth declared Clinton in criminal violation of the federal Privacy Act for publicly releasing friendly letters from Willey, the former White House volunteer who accused the president of making sexual advances. That broadside was delivered though the Willey accusations had nothing to do with the case before the court.

In May, an appeals court rebuked Lamberth for his declaration of presidential illegality, saying: "It was inappropriate for the district court gratuitously to invoke sweeping pronouncements on alleged criminal activity that extended well beyond what was necessary to decide the matter at hand."

But those "sweeping pronouncements" were only Lamberth's most recent.

Officials lambasted

Last year, he found Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt of court, saying they showed "flagrant disregard" for his orders to turn over documents related to the Indian trust funds.

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