Disbarment Questions Raise New Clinton/Nixon Comparisons

By Ben Anderson | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

(CNS) - Beset by scandal, impeachment, accusations of an "enemies list" and abuse of power, another parallel between Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon is surfacing. It centers on the question of whether Clinton will be permitted to ever practice law again, with legal experts interviewed by CNSNews.com proposing a number of options and cold realities facing Clinton.

Federal Judge Susan Weber Wright Thursday imposed sanctions against Clinton in excess of $90,000 for expenses incurred by Paula Jones's lawyers. The sanctions came after Wright found Clinton in contempt of court for having lied under oath in Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.

Aside from the court's ruling and the financial sanctions, the question of Clinton's membership in the Arkansas Bar Association has been referred to a panel of the Arkansas State Supreme Court, which will decide whether Clinton violated his professional ethics and should be disbarred for doing so.

Historically speaking, Clinton is confronted with the potential for an investigation similar to the one Nixon faced after he resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal a quarter century ago. Nixon was licensed to practice law in California and New York at the time.

After leaving the White House, Nixon voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law in California without any obstacles. But in New York, he could surrender his law license only if he answered questions of wrongdoing connected with the Watergate affair. Nixon never responded to the questions and was subsequently disbarred in New York.

"To the day (Nixon) died, that was one of the things he regretted most," said Matt Glavin, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta-based civil rights law firm that has filed a complaint against Clinton in Arkansas asking that the president be disbarred.

It's not known whether Clinton will follow the same course as Nixon, but Glavin predicted that Clinton will voluntarily surrender his license when the Arkansas Supreme Court ethics panel launches its investigation of the president's conduct. "I don't think (Clinton) wants another investigation," Glavin told CNSNews.com. But a large difference between the two scandal plagued presidents is that Clinton remains in office, whereas Nixon resigned, the only president ever to do so. Cornell University Law School Professor Charles Wolfram said Nixon's career as a lawyer and a politician was so shattered by his resignation that he made no effort to defend his actions before the New York Bar.

Among those enveloped by the Watergate scandal were some 28 lawyers, Wolfram recalled, with many of them resigning their membership to the bar. Wolfram told CNSNews.com that the post-Watergate era crystallized the question of whether an ethics panel should drop any potential charges and simply accept a lawyer's resignation from the bar with no questions asked.

Regardless of the scope of the Arkansas State Supreme Court action, it would be difficult to ignore Clinton's dishonesty under oath. Wake Forest University Law School Professor David A. Logan said that in recent years, state bar associations in general have become more vigilant in monitoring the behavior of the lawyers licensed in their jurisdictions.

"Certainly the more visibility that the matter has, the harder it is for the state bar to look the other way," Logan told CNSNews.com, suggesting that lawyers in Arkansas may find it harder to overlook Clinton's actions.

"No matter who you are, no matter who you're dealing with, no matter how private you think the conduct, you still are subject, at least in theory, to be held to the same standards established by the state bar," Logan said. He illustrated the point by noting a case in South Carolina, in which a lawyer was disbarred for allegedly stealing her daughter's Girl Scout cookie money.

But there could also be an option open to Clinton that falls somewhere between resigning his license to practice law and outright disbarment, according to Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Emeritus Harold Levinson. "Sometimes, discipline proceedings are handled by plea bargain," Levinson told CNSNews.com. He said it could be possible for Clinton to "agree(ing) to plead guilty," and possibly receive "a lesser punishment."

While the issue of Clinton's possible disbarment or resignation from the bar may become a footnote in history, one observer said he doesn't believe such action would have any practical impact.

The SLF's Glavin said he believes it is unlikely that Clinton would practice law after leaving office, making his disbarment practically moot. But he also said that settling the issue would have what he called "a symbolic impact."

"No matter who you are, even if you're the President of the United States, you can not lie under oath," said Glavin.