Newsreal: Bugliosi the bomb thrower

Vincent Bugliosi says the stupidity of the Supreme Court's Paula Jones ruling is rivaled only by the outrageous bias of Kenneth Starr's out-of-control investigation.

By Lori Leibovich

Published March 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Attorneys for Paula Jones filed a 700-page document Friday detailing Jones' charges of sexual misconduct against President Clinton, including affidavits and depositions from other women who claim to have had sexual encounters with the president. Legal experts have said the filing is substantial enough that Jones' case will probably go to trial, rather than being thrown out of court by summary judgment, as the president's lawyers had hoped.

This means that in a matter of months, the leader of the free world may have to publicly answer questions about his sexual behavior and even his genitalia -- while at the same time trying to conduct the business of the country.

How did the Paula Jones case, which most legal experts agree is tenuous at best, get to the Supreme Court in the first place? According to attorney and author Vincent Bugliosi, the case should never have seen the light of day -- at least not until President Clinton had left office.

Bugliosi has weighed in on some of the most notorious trials of the last 30 years. As Los Angeles district attorney, he successfully prosecuted the Charles Manson case -- which he chronicled in his bestselling "Helter Skelter" -- and last year tore the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson case to shreds in "Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder." Now, in "No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton" (The Library of Contemporary Thought), Bugliosi takes the Supreme Court to task for deciding in favor of Jones.

In passionate, at times vitriolic prose, Bugliosi writes that the Supreme Court ruling is "so shallow that anyone using even an ounce of common sense could navigate its weak currents" and calls it "an incomprehensible and terribly flawed decision against the nation's most powerful and important citizen, one that has injurious ramifications for all of us."

Salon talked to Bugliosi yesterday about Kenneth Starr's "out of control" tactics, Bob Bennett's sloppy legal work on behalf of the president and how the Supreme Court should have put the country's best interests before those of Jones.

How does the 700-page document filed on Friday by Paula Jones' lawyers change the case against the president?

She is just opposing the motion of summary judgment. In my book, I point out that she did not file a sexual harassment lawsuit because the statute of limitations had already run out. So with her lawsuit she now has to prove not only that the president did what she claims he did, and that she turned him down, but as a result of her rebuffing him, she suffered in the workplace. She must prove that her rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment were violated. The defense filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that she has not suffered, even assuming that everything took place in the room that she says did. They point out that she got merit raises, cost of living wages, etc.

The language in the documents released Friday is a lot harsher than before -- her lawyers are now using words like "assault."

That indicates that her lawyers feel the real cause of action, the 14th Amendment, is weak. They are trying to beef up the other stuff -- what took place in the room. She was not alleging this before, she was just talking about sexual harassment. Now she is apparently indicating that an assault took place. The problem with that argument is that she waited three years to file her lawsuit.

Even though her case is not rock-solid, what if she goes in front of a jury? Won't they feel sympathy for this woman who claims she was victimized?

If they believe what she said, that may make them more amenable to finding sexual discrimination in the workplace. That would be improper on their part. Because the judge will instruct them: You have to find discrimination in the workplace, not find him guilty for what may have happened in that room. But you can instruct from now until doomsday -- if the jury is sympathetic to your cause, they can come back with a ruling that is helpful to you.

Is it rare that a case gets thrown out on summary judgment?

Yeah. There was already a motion by the president to dismiss a long time ago, but those aren't as likely to be granted. With the motion for summary judgment, there is a greater likelihood because at that point, you submit affidavits, depositions and everything that you didn't have at the earlier level -- it is almost a mini-trial. The judge now has access to depositions on both sides and affidavits on both sides. Her [Judge Susan Wright] position will have to be: Is it possible that a reasonable jury could come back with a favorable judgment for the plaintiff? If she determines that a reasonable jury could not, then she may grant the motion. My guess is that she won't grant the motion -- she is a human being, and this being such an extremely high visibility case, she may be inclined to let this thing be heard by a jury. If no one knew who the president was, and it was a weak case, there'd be a greater likelihood of her throwing it out.

You say that the Supreme Court's decision to hear the Paula Jones case in the first place was "fatally defective." Why did the Supreme Court rule the way it did?

The Supreme Court came down with a ruling that was devoid of all common sense, in my opinion. Also, more curiously, they violated their own fundamental legal principles. The reviewer who reviewed my book for the Washington Post said, "The U.S. Supreme Court disgraced itself with a ruling that may yet rank with the Dred Scott case and Plessy vs. Ferguson in judicial shallowness." Now, those two cases are perhaps the most infamous in the court's history. Here you have the Washington Post -- after I have savaged them in my book, by the way -- coming back and saying that the court disgraced itself.

What exactly did they do wrong?

Here is what they did wrong. Whenever any court in the land -- and it makes no difference whether it is a small claims court, the U.S. Supreme Court or a court in East Texas -- is confronted with two interests that are both valid but competing, the court must, unless it wants to flip a coin, balance the interests and decide which interest is entitled to the most protection, which is the more important. In this case, for whatever reason, you could say, mysteriously, the court failed to balance the interest. If they had balanced the interest, what valid argument under the moon could be made for the proposition that Paula Jones' individual interest is more important than the rights of 260 million Americans to have a full-time president be undistracted and undiverted from his duties? I don't think anyone has come up yet with a valid argument that would say that in our democracy, one citizen's right is more important than the conflicting rights of millions of Americans. The president, be he a Democrat or Republican, works every day on national and international problems that affect all of our lives. We simply cannot afford to have his time, his energy and his attention be substantially diverted by private lawsuits and inquiries into his private sexual life. That would not happen in any other nation of the world. That is insane.

The second public interest here, which we should not forget, is that the president, no matter his party, represents this nation and its image in the world community more than anyone else in the world. Everyone in the world knows our president. Anything that diminishes a president automatically diminishes the entire country. We have a situation now where people around the world are laughing at us, telling jokes about our president, we have become the laughingstock of the world. In May, Paula Jones may take the witness stand in Little Rock, right in the middle of the president's term, and she is going to be talking about the character of the president's genitalia, and about the distinguishing characteristics of his private parts. Absolutely outrageous! Any American citizen who is concerned about the dignity and the stature of the office of the presidency, which is bigger than the person who occupies it, has got to be very upset about it. The Supreme Court decided that Paula Jones' individual interests, come hell or high water, took precedence over all other considerations affecting this nation and its millions of citizens. It was a terrible decision by the court.

Do you think the court's decision was politically motivated?

I won't ascribe any dishonorable motive to the court. We are getting into speculation. I would reject out of hand that there was any political motivation. I just think things like this happen. Their minds were on sabbatical when the president asked for temporary immunity.

You say in the book that the president's lawyers messed up too.

The president's lawyers never helped at all. They made the wrong argument, they argued the subtle, elegant argument -- separation of powers. It is a valid argument, though very weak, and the court rejected it out of hand. It would not have been easy for them to reject balancing of interest. If they ruled in favor of Paula Jones, they'd have to put down in black and white something that would make them look like fools: that they had balanced the interest, and they thought the right of this individual to go to trial right now was more important than the conflicting rights of millions of Americans. How do you write something like that down?

What would you have presented to the judge if you were Clinton's lawyer?

Balancing of interest! If I had prepared a 50-page brief, 48 pages would have been on balancing of interest, and two pages on separation of powers. Then the court wouldn't have had any choice.

But even though the lawyers were incompetent in not raising the balance of interest issue, the court on its own has a duty to determine what the law is. They can't say, well, these lawyers are incompetent.

So why did they vote in favor of Paula Jones 9-0?

That's the argument I always hear: "It was nine-nothing! Are you saying that they were all wrong?" But even the court doesn't buy a fatuous argument like that, that they are never wrong. If they did, they would never reverse themselves. And they reverse themselves all the time. They just did something which is incomprehensible here. They have gotten a free ride up to this point. But when you have the main paper in the nation's capital, where the court is, saying that they disgraced themselves, they are not getting a free ride anymore.

Why haven't more people come out against the ruling, as you have?

No one saw it prior to this book. No one was criticizing the court before this book. There were many people who were upset by the court's decision, and said, "God, this is going to hurt the office of the presidency," but those very same people go on to say that the court had no choice -- that it was a legally correct opinion. I am saying that it was a legally incorrect opinion. I am getting letters, phone calls, faxes from lawyers around the country, including lawyers practicing constitutional law, and they are saying, "Vince, you are right, the court did not balance the interest."

But what do you see that others don't?

I am not particularly bright, but I do see things that other people don't see. The classic example was in the Simpson case, where everyone thought the prosecution did a good job until I wrote "Outrage." Now the consensus among more educated people is that the DA did a terrible job. They were all saying that the prosecution did all they could possibly do, and it was all the fault of the jury. Well, the jury was bad, but the prosecution was even worse. When you ask me why do I see obvious things, they are not the type of things that require a lot of intelligence, if they did I wouldn't be able to see them. But I am able to see some of these things because I am uninfluenced by expectations, they don't mean anything to me. What happened here is that people said, this is the U.S. Supreme Court -- they obviously know what they are doing. No one was even thinking of balancing of interest. I think they just goofed. You get a mob, and they follow sheeplike, one goes one way, and all of a sudden, they are all aboard. Justice Breyer was strange, though, because at first he seemed to be disagreeing with the court. He wrote a 16-page opinion that attacked the court, and then in the last paragraph turned completely around.

In the first part of the book you say you are not pro-Clinton or pro-Democrat. But you do call some right-wing Republicans "feeble-minded morons." Why do they make you so angry?

I'm talking about the right wing of the Republicans, not the whole party per se. It is my view that its right wing has hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have. One reason they make me so angry is that, contrary to what they say, I find them to be very unpatriotic. If they were patriotic, they would want the president to do well, even if he is a Democrat, because if the president does well, the country does well. They don't seem to be concerned about how the country does. They only want the country to do well if one of their people is in office. If not, all they want to do is to destroy that person. These people are the flag-wavers. I also don't like hypocrisy. Nine out of 10 times, the true heroes are not flag-wavers. They are hypocritical, and they are out to savage the president even though they know that it is humiliating the entire country.

Do you agree with Hillary Clinton that there is a "vast right-ring conspiracy" against the president?

Not in the law school sense of these groups getting together and agreeing. A conspiracy is two or more people getting together to commit a crime. Not in that sense. However, unless you believe in coincidences, all of these groups that have been attacking the president for the past several years, without exception, are right-wing groups. There are no moderate groups in the Republican or Democratic parties who are doing what these people are doing. Although there is no conspiracy, the reality is the same. The right wing is savaging the president. It has nothing to do with the fact that some people say he is immoral. They did the same thing with Jimmy Carter: They savaged Carter and Carter was one of the most moral people to inhabit the Oval Office. If you are a Democrat, then these feeble-minded morons are out to get you. That is why I am upset with them.

What are your feelings about Kenneth Starr?

I have extremely negative views about him. He had a professional and ethical responsibility to turn down his appointment as a Whitewater prosecutor because he was already on the record as being pro-Paula Jones. He was already giving serious thought to preparing a supporting legal brief on her behalf. There was an absolute conflict of interest. He had a duty to say he was flattered by the appointment, but that he was already on record as taking her side against the president. He was not an "independent counsel." This guy has had 20 prosecutors, 10 FBI agents and $40 million to investigate a small-time, money-losing venture in Little Rock from 20 years ago! That is outrageous.

You describe Starr as "out of control."

He was demonstrating a troubling preoccupation with Clinton's private sexual life, long before Monica Lewinsky.

How do you explain his appointment and reappointment, then?

Well, look at who appointed him! A three-judge federal panel headed by a very conservative judge who owes his judgeship to that paragon of fairness and moderation, Jesse Helms. So you've got the right wing's fingerprints all over this. Starr is the darling of the right wing.

Would you agree that there is collusion between Starr and Jones' lawyers?

There is no question that there is a synergism here, but whether it is an intentional synergism, well, they both deny that. They are certainly playing off each other and profiting from what the other one is doing. Whether they are breaking bread together, I don't know.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that mail solicitations to the Paula Jones Legal Fund weren't reaching her lawyers and instead were being absorbed by Jones herself. Should she be prosecuted for mail fraud?

I can't comment because I don't know all the details.

The White House has accused the media of being overzealous in reporting Paula Jones' accusations against President Clinton while ignoring Mr. Bennett's court filing three weeks ago to dismiss the Jones case.

The media have been aiding and abetting Starr, not because they are conservative, but because their primary motivation is getting a good story. You have people like Sam Donaldson looking very happy in front of the White House. The fact that the president might be destroyed doesn't matter to them, and that bothers me. Sure, we want the president to have respect for the Oval Office -- let's assume now that he did have consensual sex with Monica Lewinsky -- but we're talking about lawful and consensual activity among adults. They've been treating this like they found a mutilated corpse in the White House basement with the president's fingerprints on it! The coverage the media is giving this is disproportionate. They are not showing any restraint or responsibility.

Isn't the media just doing their job -- digging up stories?

Under that logic, then the media would investigate every story with the same tenacity.

But every story doesn't involve the president of the United States.

I think that is a partially valid argument. But the question is, if they are doing this for consensual sexual activity, what would they do for murder? If there was sexual activity and the president was trying to cover it up -- well, that's almost as common as the common cold. But Starr is investigating this like it's murder or treason. This is a guy who tries to turn a mother against her daughter. It's absolutely unbelievable.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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