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Bill Clinton won’t hurt much or learn much from his Arkansas disbarment proceedings. Whatever Clinton winds up doing out of office — replacing Jerry Springer as MTV Spring Break co-host in Cancun; working as a greeter at DreamWorks SKG in Universal City; hanging on as the favorite fund raiser of the Senate Spouse’s Club in Washington, D.C. — he’s not likely to need an Arkansas bar card or a Little Rock law practice. But there’s a particular lesson for the American Bar Association in the latest twist to the never-ending Clinton saga. Politicians easily make political fools out of bar groups and their leaders. Attorneys who get into trouble with federal judges and state disciplinary committees don’t usually find ABA panjandrums crowding about, trying to help. But this President has plenty of pals in the upper echelons of bar leadership. Last year’s ABA head, Philip Anderson, once gave Clinton a job in Anderson’s law firm when Clinton was in between elective offices. So the same week last summer that U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Webber Wright imposed an almost $90,000 sanction on the president for giving “false, misleading and evasive” testimony that was “designed to obstruct the legal process,” the ABA invited Clinton to give the featured address at its 1999 annual meeting in Atlanta. This provided a wink and a nod which said that the nation’s chief executive and head law enforcement honcho really hadn’t done anything wrong. The convention appearance put Clinton in the national media glare being applauded by America’s largest lawyer organization. Just in case anyone missed the message that the ABA applies different standards for naughty higher-ups than for the rest of the bar, former U.S. Associate Attorney General and ex-con Webster Hubbell was invited to the same convention to opine on the wisdom of the Independent Counsel statute. He must be the first law firm embezzler — someone who should be as welcome at lawyer functions as a child molester at a P.T.A. meeting — honored with a speaking engagement on legal reform. In the end, the public relations gimmicks proved less than completely effective. It wasn’t an organized group of political enemies in Washington that brought Clinton to the brink of disbarment. Tom Brokaw summed up the situation in an interview with Clinton just hours after the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct announced it was asking for disbarment: “Mr. President, this comes in a state where you were the attorney general, where you taught law — you’ve been now been held in contempt of court by a federal judge in that state and you’ve been recommended for disbarment. “With all due respect, this is a stain on your record well outside the political area, isn’t it?” Clinton denied that he had done anything wrong. Even if he had, he continued, “more significant conduct” by other lawyers led “to nowhere near this kind of decision.” “The only reason I agreed even to appeal it is that my lawyers looked at all the precedents and they said there’s no way in the world, if they just treat you like everybody else has been treated, that this is even close to that kind of case,” added the President. Translated into plain English, the President contends that since he hasn’t stolen anything, hasn’t been punished by a disciplinary body before and has spent most of his life in politics, he shouldn’t be disbarred. Few working lawyers would concede that politician-lawyers should be held to a lower standard of conduct. But public commentary shows that attorney opinions about Clinton are as divided as the rest of the nation. Some applaud the Arkansas decision to initiate disbarment proceedings. Some think that Clinton has been punished enough. And some lawyers just agree with the President — that he shouldn’t be held to a different standard, and that disbarring him would amount to that. But here’s the problem. The mantra of ABA defenders of the status quo is that the “core values of the legal profession” distinguish lawyers from other professionals. They go on about what would be lost if non-lawyers were allowed to practice law or oversee lawyers in multidisciplinary firms. The arguments boil down to an assertion that lawyers put loyalty to the law ahead of personal self- interest. In fact, that is how many lawyers conduct themselves. What “core values of the profession” were being promoted by the ABA’s suck-up to Clinton? What principles were being espoused? That the profession protects its own? Do as lawyers say, not as lawyers do? The Washington Post editorialized that the speaking invitation to the President “could not be better calculated to entrench the larger public’s contempt for lawyers as people who twist the truth for their own selfish ends.” Against growing evidence to the contrary, the ABA still claims to be the collective voice of the profession. Lawyers as a group can’t be expected to agree on much. But it remains the general consensus that no one, least of all an attorney, should lie during sworn testimony. Whatever the merits and demerits of the Whitewater case, the Paula Jones lawsuit, or the impeachment proceedings, what put Clinton’s bar card in jeopardy was testifying falsely in a deposition being conducted in front of a federal judge. It’s unfortunate that it took an obscure Arkansas disciplinary committee rather than the ABA to make this point. In the future the ABA should be less concerned about friends in high places and more attentive to maintaining professional accord about what is unacceptable conduct for an attorney. Cozying up to any attorney-politician in trouble isn’t the way to accomplish that.

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