On Aug. 24, 1998, the Washington Times published an op-ed piece by Mark R. Levin, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, and Washington attorney Arthur Fergenson, in which they advocated that U.S. District Judge Wright find Bill Clinton in contempt of court for his false deposition testimony in Jones vs. Clinton.
Eight days later, Wright hinted in a footnote to another order in that case that she was actively considering the matter of Clinton’s contempt.
On Sept. 2, 1998, Landmark filed a statement of judicial notice in the Jones case formally requesting that the court hold a hearing on its own motion to determine whether the president should be held in contempt of court for his misleading deposition testimony.
In its statement, Landmark observed that the Clinton deposition was unique in that the judge, at the request of the president, personally presided over it. Ordinarily, judges are not present during depositions — just the parties, their attorneys and a court reporter, who administers the oath and records the testimony.
How could the president have been more contemptuous of the judge’s authority than to get her to fly from Arkansas to Washington, D.C., to preside over a deposition in which he lied?
Levin and Fergenson on Oct. 1, 1998, in a second op-ed piece to the Times, argued that an out-of-court settlement in the Jones case would not render moot the issue of the president’s contempt. In keeping with their fierce advocacy of the rule of law in the impeachment matter, the authors carefully explained that conduct constituting contempt of court is an affront to the authority of the court, not to the opposing party in the litigation.
As such, it is the exclusive prerogative of the court, and not the parties to the lawsuit, to decide whether to pursue the contempt remedy in order to vindicate the authority of the court.
These writings and filings by Landmark, in addition to prompting Wright’s footnote (and later order) led another major player in these proceedings to break his silence. Clinton’s lawyer in the Jones case, Robert Bennett, notified the court that Monica Lewinsky’s affidavit denying sexual relations with the president was false.
Bennett, who had forcefully elicited from the First Client an affirmation under oath that Lewinsky’s affidavit was true, wanted to distance himself as much as he could from any role he may have played in misleading the court.
This week, in a 32-page opinion, The Washington Post referred to as “biting,” Wright did in fact hold Clinton in contempt of court. In no uncertain terms, she described Clinton’s testimony as “intentionally false” and said he gave “false, misleading, and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.” She specifically described as false Clinton’s averments that he was never alone with Lewinsky and that he did not have a sexual relationship with her.
As if in direct response to Landmark’s argument that Clinton’s behavior was an affront to the authority of the court, Wright said it was important to act to “protect the integrity” of the judicial process. “Sanctions must be imposed, not only to redress the president’s misconduct, but to deter others who might themselves consider emulating the president of the United States by engaging in misconduct that undermines the integrity of the judicial system,” she wrote.
Two important and related lessons can be gleaned from this story. First, Landmark Legal Foundation demonstrated that working within the judicial system can pay dividends even when the political system fails. Second, a federal judge has reinvigorated the rule of law and the separation of powers doctrine by holding a sitting president in contempt of court.
Her ruling is more than a vindication of the rule of law; it is a validation of the legal system itself. It is a powerful declaration of the indispensability of an independent judiciary and its coequal authority with the executive branch under our constitutional system. Our system simply cannot tolerate the chief executive thumbing his nose at the judicial branch with impunity.
Where the political system failed to bring the president to justice in the impeachment trial, due to rank partisanship, the judiciary at least did its part to correct the record. Plus, the ruling salvages the principle placed in grave jeopardy by the impeachment trial: that we are a nation of laws and not men. Translation: No one, including the president of the United States, is above the law — even if he is beyond accountability in the political sphere.
Bravo Landmark and Wright.
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