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Clinton Eligible, Once Again, to Practice Law

Staff Reporter of the Sun
January 17, 2006
NY Sun

After five years of banishment from the legal profession, President Clinton will be eligible this week to reclaim the law license he gave up as a consequence of the inaccurate responses he gave under oath to questions about his relationship with a White House intern.

Mr. Clinton's suspension from the Arkansas bar, which he formally agreed to a day before leaving office in 2001, expires on Thursday. It is unclear whether the former president will seek reinstatement to the bar, but officials in Arkansas have been preparing for such a request.

"There are people who have had this date marked on their calendar," the executive director of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct, Stark Ligon, told The New York Sun. He said court rules prevent him from confirming or denying whether Mr. Clinton has filed an application to be reinstated until the committee takes some action in the case.

However, Mr. Ligon said such applications are routinely approved. "The presumption fairly would be that reinstatement should be granted unless some good cause could be shown why it should not," he said. Mr. Ligon said any request from Mr. Clinton would be sent by fax or mail to a seven-member committee panel, which usually acts promptly. "We can generally get a turnaround within a week to 10 days," the bar official said.

A spokesman for Mr. Clinton, Jay Carson, declined to comment Sunday on whether the former president wants to rejoin the bar. The attorney who represented Mr. Clinton in earlier proceedings related to his law license, David Kendall, also declined to be interviewed on the subject.

Since leaving the White House, Mr. Clinton has shown no sign of being encumbered by his lack of a law license.

He has built his charitable foundation into a major player in the delivery of anti-AIDS medicines to poor countries around the world and has joined with President George H.W. Bush in fund-raising appeals to rebuild from disasters such as the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Clinton also has given dozens of paid speeches for fees of $100,000 to $300,000 each.

"He has been one busy human being," a former senator from Arkansas, David Pryor, said in an interview yesterday. Mr. Pryor, who runs a University of Arkansas school affiliated with Mr. Clinton's presidential library, said he doubted the former president would want to join a firm in Little Rock. "I cannot fathom him coming down here practicing law, but other than that, who knows?" the former senator said. "If you start speculating what President Clinton is going to do, you'd be in trouble."

A professor of legal ethics at New York University, Stephen Gillers, said he expected Mr. Clinton would seek to reclaim his Arkansas bar membership. "It would just be personal vindication," the professor said. "If he is admitted, he may see it as confirmation of his claim that the original transgression was not as bad as some made it out to be."

Mr. Gillers said a law license also could help Mr. Clinton financially, by allowing him to become a rainmaker at a New York or Washington law firm. "There are a lot of law firms that might be quite happy to have him as part of the firm because of the business-getting potential," he said.

While there appears to be little standing in the way of Mr. Clinton's reinstatement to the Arkansas bar, rules for admission in New York and Washington could pose a challenge to him quickly joining those bars. Admission by reciprocity to the New York bar requires that an applicant show that he or she has spent five of the last seven years working as a lawyer.

A former official with the New York Board of Law Examiners, James Fuller, said the rule is enforced strictly. "I don't know what they'd say about the presidency - if that qualified. I'd doubt it," Mr. Fuller said.

A similar rule would appear to dictate a five-year delay in Mr. Clinton's admission to the bar in the nation's capital, chiefly because he took the bar examination so long ago.

Mr. Clinton, who graduated from Yale Law School in 1973, has spent only a few years practicing law. He served as attorney general of Arkansas from 1977 to 1979. He also worked at a Little Rock law firm from 1980 to 1982, between stints as governor.

Mr. Gillers noted that at any point Mr. Clinton could try to gain admission to the New York or Washington bars by taking the bar examination. Like other bar applicants, he would also have to demonstrate good moral character.

Mr. Clinton agreed to give up his Arkansas law license for five years as part of a three-way deal struck with the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct and Robert Ray, the independent counsel who took over the investigation into the president's statements about an intern, Monica Lewinsky. In the pact, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that some answers he gave about Ms. Lewinsky during a 1998 deposition were false and that he "knowingly gave misleading and evasive answers." However, he maintained that he did not intend to lie. The allegations were some of the same made against Mr. Clinton in articles of impeachment that were passed by the House but rejected by the Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court also suspended Mr. Clinton from its bar in 2000. He officially announced he would contest his disbarment, but later resigned.

Arkansas bar discipline officials received complaints about Mr. Clinton from a variety of sources, including the federal judge who oversaw the case where the former president testified. However, no public action was taken until 2000, when a conservative legal group, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, won an order from the Arkansas Supreme Court mandating that the discipline process go forward.

The attorney who handled the case for the foundation, Lynn Hogue, said in an interview Saturday that he is not inclined to resist the former president recovering his legal credentials. "My only point was that the conduct of lying to a grand jury, particularly when done by a lawyer who was not just an ordinary lawyer but who held the highest office in the land, should not go unchallenged and should not go unpunished," said Mr. Hogue, a law professor at Georgia State University. "I think the punishment was appropriate and basically he's served his time. Should he want to seek reinstatement, I don't think that's a problem."