Steps Toward Justice

Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat widely respected as a student of American history, was right this week to warn his colleagues and the people against a rush to judgment. The senator included this warning in a speech that made clear his disgust with White House tactics of delay and prevarication in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Now that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report is before the Congress and the people, that note of caution is doubly apt. Judicious process is crucial. This is, after all, the beginning of a constitutionally outlined procedure that could ultimate in the president's removal from office. Few occasions are more momentous.

The House leadership has made a good start. The House Rules Committee makes the initial decision on releasing the report to members of Congress and the public. Then the Judiciary Committee moves on to a close examination of Mr. Starr's findings, preparatory to a decision on whether to recommend articles of impeachment.

Some fundamentals:

* Bipartisanship has never been more needed. Republicans have to let the facts and constitutional responsibility guide them, not distaste for this president. Democrats have to focus on Mr. Clinton's actions, not on the independent counsel's prosecutorial methods.

* Justice is the standard. The presumption of innocence holds for the president as for other Americans. Clinton's response to charges should be weighed along with Starr's conclusions.

* Matters of privacy are important. While the public should know what Starr has come up with, the stacks of raw data delivered to the House likely contain material that could damage innocent people. As with the congressional investigation of the Watergate scandal 24 years ago, much of that ought to remain sealed.

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