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Contempt - Contempt Proceedings Against President Clinton

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On April 12, 1999, President WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON became the first sitting president in United States history to be held in contempt of court. The contempt charge against President Clinton stemmed from a deposition he gave in connection with a 1994 SEXUAL HARASSMENT lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. Jones v. Clinton, 858 F. Supp. 902 (E.D. Ark. 1994). Jones alleged that on May 8, 1991, she was an Arkansas state employee working at a conference held at a hotel in Little Rock. At some point during the conference, Jones claimed she was escorted to a hotel room by one of Clinton's bodyguards, where she was introduced to the then-governor. Shortly after the introduction, Jones alleged that Clinton dropped his trousers and demanded oral sex from her. Jones said that though she refused and was allowed to leave, her career as a state government employee suffered thereafter.

The Jones lawsuit languished in pre-trial discovery for the first three years after it was filed. On January 17, 1998, Jones and her lawyers deposed Clinton, who was now serving his second term as president of the United States. During the deposition, Clinton was asked a series of questions about his relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The president testified that he was never alone with the former White House intern and did not have a sexual relationship with her.

A subsequent probe by independent counsel KENNETH STARR revealed that the president's DNA had been found on Lewinsky's dress, which eventually led Clinton to admit that he had an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with his former intern (Jones v. Clinton, 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999). The discovery of the dress also fueled the House of Representatives to draft ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT against the president.

A month after giving the deposition, Clinton filed a motion to dismiss the Jones lawsuit. On April 1, 1998, United States District Judge SUSAN WEBBER WRIGHT granted the motion to dismiss, finding that Jones had "failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to a jury." Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998). While the case was pending on appeal, Clinton and Jones settled the sexual harassment lawsuit for $850,000.

A year later Judge Wright addressed the issue whether President Clinton should be held in contempt for denying his relationship with Lewinsky during the January 1998 deposition. At the time he gave the deposition, there was very little evidence indicating that the president's testimony was false. But in the 14 months that followed, it became clear that the president had not only been alone with Monica Lewinsky but also had some form of sexual relations with her.

Accordingly, Judge Wright found the president in contempt for giving "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process" at a deposition over which she personally presided. Jones v. Clinton, 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999). Although Clinton maintained that his "inti-mate" relationship with Lewinsky did not constitute "sexual" relations, Wright said that it is difficult to construe "the president's sworn statements … as anything other than a willful refusal to obey this court's discovery orders." Jones v. Clinton 36 F. Supp. 2d 1118 (E.D. Ark. 1999).

In July 1998, Wright leveled a $90,686 fine against the president. Wright said regarding this case that the fine was intended to both punish Clinton for the contempt violation and also "to deter others who might consider emulating the president's misconduct."

Wright then referred the matter to the Arkansas Supreme Court to determine whether the president should lose his license to practice law in that state. In May 1999 the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct recommended that Clinton be disbarred. However, on January 19, 2001, his last day in office, President Clinton resolved the case before the state ethics committee by agreeing to surrender his law license for a period of five years and admitting, according to Pete Yost in an AP Online report, that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in violation of Arkansas rules governing attorney ethics. Additionally, Clinton agreed to pay a $25,000 fine.

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