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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Clarifying a clarification

by Mike Masterson | July 3, 2021 at 3:19 a.m.

All too often in life, things aren't as simple to explain as some would have us (or themselves want to) believe, especially in our highly partisan 2021 America.

Take, for instance, the brief clarification about the controversy among Bowen Law School faculty members over naming a richly endowed professorship in constitutional law after former President Bill Clinton, published at the tail of my recent column.

But facts I've since learned prompt me to more fully "clarify the clarification" for valued readers about Clinton's loss of legal privileges before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the previous column, I discussed the Bowen administration's unannounced decision to superimpose Clinton's name on a professorship at an Arkansas law school where Clinton never served on the faculty. Consequently, what had been known as the "Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy" since its founding in 1999, suddenly became called the "William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service."

Bowen Professor Rob Steinbuch said this title change came, regardless of the fact that Clinton was suspended from practice in this state (and has never reclaimed that ability), ignoring that Clinton was disbarred by the U.S. Supreme Court, notwithstanding that Clinton was held in contempt in federal court for giving false testimony, and in spite of the fact that this endowed chair had not been referred to as the Clinton professorship for the previous 20 years.

In my column, I quoted emails, obtained through Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act, from professor Tom Sullivan and Steinbuch, which said Clinton was disbarred from practicing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, a reader afterwards disputed the use of the term "disbarment," since Clinton agreed to forfeit his Supreme Court license within the 40 days the court allowed him to challenge its disbarment action. So that constituted a suspension of his law license. Yet Clinton's lawyer never filed a rebuttal to the disbarment even though initially indicating he would.

The assertion among some today appears to be that by forfeiting his ability to appear before the Supreme Court, Clinton thereby nullified the Supreme's disbarment action.

This is exactly the type of Clinton language-parsing the public has sadly come to expect from this crowd, said Steinbuch. Several national news organizations referred at the time to the Supreme Court's disbarment of Clinton.

Even The New York Times (hardly a bastion of conservative views) in a headline described the court's action as disbarment. The Guardian, a British news and media website, published a near-identical headline and story about the high court disbarring Clinton.

In what appears to me to be yet another politically inspired word game, one story published by a Washington Post reporter in November 2001 said the high court had "suspended" Clinton. The resulting story read to me as if the reporter was purposefully trying his darnedest to avoid using the word "disbarred." Similar activity seems afoot here, Steinbuch added.

The law professor said word parsing amounts to "transparent chicanery."

"If you don't agree, then try to answer these questions about the court's action: How long was Clinton's 'suspension' for? When did Clinton's 'suspension' end? Is Clinton entitled to reinstatement, as is the case upon the completion of a suspension?"

"Of course, there are no answers to those questions because Clinton was not merely suspended from the U.S. Supreme Court. He cannot practice there. If he were to show up at that court today, the first thing the justices would likely require is for Clinton to respond to the court's disbarment order."

As a somewhat analogous aside, I also can't help but note that the previous dean of the Bowen Law School, Michael Hunter Schwartz, who left the deanship almost immediately after he sent an email to the student body bemoaning President Trump's election, was "suspended" for six years between 2008 and 2014 by the California Bar for not paying his bar fees and failing to keep up with mandatory continuing legal education requirements.

He was hired as dean at Bowen in 2013 while his suspension was in effect, according to Steinbuch. He left Bowen during spring 2017, bu which time he had restored his California credentials.

His disciplinary action, by the way, was indeed a suspension, not a disbarment.

Putting aside that bit of irony, maybe this effort to freely substitute the term "suspension" over "disbarment" derives from the mistaken belief a suspension is, well, just not all that important.

Steinbuch summarized facts of the Clinton matter this way: "The Supreme Court issued an order stating Clinton was to be disbarred within 40 days thereafter, presumably based on his long-term suspension from the Arkansas Bar.

"The court gave him 40 days to explain why he shouldn't be disbarred. But Clinton chose not to respond and instead surrendered his license. The original order regarding disbarment, therefore, remains unchallenged and unchanged."

The way I read this latest exercise in word-parsing is that the high court's disbarment action stands today as it was issued, regardless of whether Clinton chose to forfeit his law license rather than respond to the court.

I compare the situation to a thief convicted of theft, then volunteering to give back the stolen money, forgo his appeal, accept a penalty and pledge never to offend again, all of which is fine and dandy. But his original conviction still stands, right?

Steinbuch said he was reminded of an Arkansas Court of Appeals opinion regarding employment law that found: "In the instant case, the claimant took the less severe, embarrassing and traumatic option of resignation rather than discharge. The resignation was ... tantamount to a discharge ... ."

I have no doubt others will continue to interpret what transpired between our nation's highest court and Clinton in ways that suit their political biases.

After all, nurturing political power and loyalty over truth and integrity sadly is the way society has become in this troubled nation where ideological word spin and Machiavellian tactics often take precedence over reality and facts.

Some of us may say "tomato" and others "tomahto." But facts are stubborn things. And to my knowledge, despite my searching, the Supreme Court never formally withdrew its disbarment action against Clinton. Now, even 20 years later, some continue to try to wriggle history free from Clinton's disreputable past behavior.

As Steinbuch added: "With or without Bill's help, I know what the definition of 'is' is. And I know when someone is trying to masquerade manure by dousing it in cheap perfume. I can tell from the smell, and it ain't good."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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