Meanwhile, Back in Arkansas

While the kosovo crisis has obscured President Clinton's many-sided legal problems, two events this week remind us that they haven't gone away.

In one, Mr. Clinton became the first president ever to be held in contempt of court while in office.

Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright issued the ruling this week after finding that Clinton's testimony during a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case was "intentionally false" and that the president had engaged in a "willful refusal" to obey the court's orders. During that deposition, as all America now knows, Clinton denied that he ever had a sexual relationship or was alone with Monica Lewinsky.

Judge Wright ordered the president to pay expenses for her trip to Washington to supervise the deposition and to pay "any reasonable expenses including attorneys' fees" that Mrs. Jones incurred as a result of his false testimony. That could cost him - or more likely his legal fund - several tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition, the judge referred the matter to the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct, which could disbar Clinton, who is a lawyer.

For those disappointed by the Senate's refusal to convict and remove the president earlier this year, Wright's ruling shows the system does work. The court held the president to account for his lying under oath and upheld the rule of law.

No one can accuse Wright of playing politics. She handled the Jones case with utmost fairness, ultimately dismissing it, the right thing to do. She says she would have reached the same decision even had the president told the truth. She purposely held off on her contempt ruling so as not to interfere with the impeachment process.

Some speculate that the finding could give more ammunition to independent counsel Kenneth Starr should he seek to indict the president for perjury or obstruction of justice after Clinton leaves office.

But in the week's second event, Judge Starr got a setback himself when a Little Rock jury acquitted Susan McDougal, the Clintons' former Whitewater partner, of obstruction-of- justice charges. Now Starr must decide whether to seek a new trial on the criminal-contempt charges over which the jury deadlocked.

Mrs. McDougal spent 18 months in jail for refusing to answer questions before the Whitewater grand jury. She claimed she was afraid Starr would indict her for perjury if she did not testify against the president.

The jury believed her as regards obstruction of justice. But she may not be able to make that argument in a new criminal-contempt trial. Starr must decide whether the interests of justice demand a retrial. If so, he'll have to convince an increasingly skeptical public that it's worth the cost.

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