LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — The lawsuit accuses the president of serious misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair and calls for his legal license.
In an unprecedented rebuke of a sitting president, an Arkansas Supreme Court committee on Friday sued President Clinton to strip him of his law license and declared he lacked "overall fitness" to be a lawyer.
The committee's lawsuit accused the president of engaging in serious misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair, including false testimony, that "damages the legal profession."
"The conduct of Mr. Clinton ... was motivated by a desire to protect himself from the embarrassment of his own conduct," the court's Committee on Professional Conduct wrote.
The five-page lawsuit asks that Clinton be disbarred for conducting "himself in a manner that violates the model rules of professional conduct as adopted by the Arkansas Supreme Court."
The president has 30 days to respond, and his private attorney vowed a vigorous fight to retain the law license.
"We fundamentally disagree with the complaint filed today and will defend vigorously against it," attorney David Kendall said in a statement released by the White House.
Shortly after the news, the president arranged an evening round of golf to begin the Fourth of July holiday weekend. He has said his lawyers told him that if he were to be treated like other lawyers, there would be "no way in the world" that he could lose his license.
Eight of the panel's 14 regular and auxiliary members have disqualified themselves from the case five citing ties to Clinton or the Democratic Party. The remaining six members have pursued the case, voting May 19 to approve a lawsuit aimed at revoking Clinton's Arkansas law license.
The panel said that, in a sworn deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Clinton gave misleading answers about his relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
The committee accused Clinton of "serious misconduct" and defined the term as involving "dishonesty, deceit, fraud and misrepresentation." It said it based its lawsuit on complaints filed by a federal judge and by an Atlanta law firm, the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
The five-page lawsuit said Clinton's conduct "damages the legal profession and demonstrates a lack of overall fitness to hold a license to practice law." It was accompanied by dozens of pages of exhibits, including a partial transcript of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case.
The case was assigned by computer draw to Judge John Ward, a former Democratic state representative whom Clinton in 1989 appointed to a chancery court post. Ward said immediately that he would step aside.
"He appointed me as a judge. It would be an awful appearance of partiality and that's also a concern of the courts," said Ward, who held his legislative post while Clinton was Arkansas governor.
The lawsuit falls into the regular mix of the Pulaski County court docket, the state's busiest, and any decision would probably be appealed to the state Supreme Court. It is unlikely the case will be resolved before Clinton leaves office Jan. 20.
Marie-Bernarde Miller, a 1983 graduate from the Kansas University School of Law and former nun who this year successfully argued to remove a sitting judge from office, was selected to handle the state's case.
Regardless of the outcome in local court, it is expected the case will ultimately end up before the state Supreme Court.
This is the first time an effort has been made to strip a sitting president of his law license. New York pulled Richard Nixon's law license, but that came after he resigned the presidency Aug. 9, 1974, during the Watergate scandal.
Clinton was impeached by the House and acquitted at a Senate trial, and he also has been fined for contempt of court.
The Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative law group, and U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright referred Clinton to the discipline committee, saying he lied under oath about the Lewinsky affair when asked about it by Jones' lawyers.
Jones, a former Arkansas state worker, sued Clinton in 1994, claiming he made a crude pass at her in a Little Rock hotel room three years earlier. Jones lawyers drew Lewinsky into the case in an attempt to show a pattern of sexual misconduct by Clinton, a trail later picked up by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr that led to Clinton's impeachment.
In January 1998, Clinton said in his sworn deposition: "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky."
On Aug. 17, 1998, he told a federal grand jury that he had had an inappropriate relationship with her but said the conduct he engaged in with Lewinsky did not meet the definition of sex that was given at the start of the deposition.
Wright found Clinton in contempt and fined him $90,000.
Jones settled the case out of court for $850,000 while appealing Wright's ruling dismissing her lawsuit. Clinton did not have to admit any wrongdoing.
Clinton, a licensed lawyer since Sept. 7, 1973, was attorney general of Arkansas from 1977-79 and once taught at the University of Arkansas law school. He has not practiced law since the early 1980s, between his first and second terms as Arkansas governor.
On the Net:
Southeastern Legal Foundation: http://www.southeasternlegal.org.
The White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov