Clinton’s Karmic Payback

The Senate impeachment trial is a sham. Which is exactly why it’s a good lesson in the workings of the American justice system.


Editor’s Note: Introducing a new column by Eat The State editor Geov Parrish. Notice the lack of a name for the column? That’s called reader interaction. E-mail us your suggestions. Winning submission gets a free subscription to Mother Jones.

In all of the political maneuvering that has accompanied Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, virtually everyone (except, perhaps, the public) has lost sight of the fact that this is in fact supposed to be a trial, complete with evidence, witnesses, and a factual determination of innocence or guilt. Instead, it has devolved into a sick farce, with both sides fighting to ensure that their political will—not to be confused with justice—is done. Unfortunately for Bill, the twisted trial represents a bit of karmic payback.

Clinton, you may recall, has done more than any other president in recent history to ensure that defendants in federal courts don’t get a fair trial. On civil liberties and niggling affairs like the Bill of Rights, Clinton has been a nightmare. He’s vastly expanded the federal gulag, stuffing it primarily with nonviolent drug offenders, many serving long mandatory sentences for piddling crimes. He’s stripped habeas corpus rights for federal appellants. He’s cut back legal assistance to the indigent. He’s continued the (conservative) politicization of federal judgeship appointments. He’s expanded federal wiretap and surveillance powers. He’s stripped due process for non-citizens, creating a climate of police-state repression at our borders. And, yes, he’s acted against his own commission’s recommendations by retaining racially discriminatory federal-sentencing guidelines for cocaine possession.

Most of all, Bill Clinton spent the last seven years working hard to expand Democratic support (as if the Republicans weren’t bad enough) for the presumption of guilty until proven innocent. (Makes you wonder why supposed champions of liberty like Jesse Jackson and Dick Gephart are standing shoulder to shoulder with this guy, doesn’t it?) And now he’s in the dock, trapped in a judicial nightmare that looks strikingly like the ones of his Making—the ones that ruin the lives of ordinary Americans every day.

Let’s review his predicament. First, there’s the judge. William Rehnquist, presiding Supreme Court justice, is known to be ideologically hostile to Clinton. He’s the conservative Nixon appointee who appointed the guy who named Kenneth Starr, the one-man jihad responsible for this whole case. Now he’s convening the circus.

This unfriendly courtroom is not too different from those faced by criminal defendants around the country, thanks to six years of Clinton appointees, all of whom were selected to pass the Orrin Hatch Judiciary Committee muster of approval).

Then there’s the prosecutor. Kenneth Starr is a remarkable figure: He was given virtually unlimited power to browbeat potential witnesses, all on behalf of a massive fishing expedition in search of a preordained outcome. And he himself is so biased that he, despite his ethics advisor’s counsel against it, agreed to testify as a witness in his own case. A prosecutor’s first obligation, in theory, is to the truth, as an advocate for all the people—not just those of one political party.

But Starr’s zealotry isn’t that remarkable, really; it’s matched every day in the excesses of prosecutors in Bill Clinton’s (inherited) “War on Drugs.” Federal drug-convictions are increasingly reliant on coercion of witnesses (such as the use of jailhouse snitches and are backed up by civil forfeitures that give the prosecuting agencies enormous financial incentive to attempt to convict. (The forfeiture laws, by the way, are vastly unfair themselves.)

Clinton’s presidency—at minimum, its reputation, if not the office itself—represents the biggest forfeiture of all. And, like those mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, it represents a sanction out of proportion to the original crime. Have we mentioned that Bill Clinton has made appeals of criminal cases much more difficult in the federal system? Karma, karma, karma.

And what about the simple determination of innocence or guilt? Like it or not, the House of Representatives should have already sealed Clinton’s fate on this issue. Yes he lied, but whether the punishment fits the crime is out of the Senate’s hands; that was the House’s call. But, of course, many Senate votes—like probably every Democratic one—will be swayed instead by the magnitude of the punishment, and other legal irrelevancies like party politics. Many of this country’s young black men could have their lives back if juries decided guilt or innocence based on the magnitude of the prospective sentence.

Clinton may be getting a raw deal—a majority of the public clearly thinks so—but he will get off anyway, because he has political power (in the form of a 70 percent approval rating) on his side.

And while Americans are rightly disgusted by the Republican crusade, what’s been less noticed is the cynicism we’re absorbing about the nature of American jurisprudence. Impeachment is, after all, the most extreme expression of the guiding principle of our legal system works: that no person, however powerful, should be above the law. There’s also some stuff in there about presumed innocence, punishment fitting the crime, paying one’s debt to society, and other myths we like to believe in—all of which have been shattered by this case. (What debt to society, exactly, was incurred by lying about sex?)

The final lesson in this impeachment is that the judicial system is an ideological tool, to be wielded by whomever has the most power, and truth be damned. Which is exactly how Bill Clinton has used it over his entire career. His present predicament can’t be much of a consolation to those whose lives have been ruined by Clinton’s tough-on-crime demagoguery. The fact that he’s obviously guilty of the crimes charges but will almost certainly get off (pun intended) just makes the whole damn thing sickening.

MoJo Wire columnist Geov Parrish is a long-time activist, co-editor of the weekly newsletter Eat The State, and political columnist for the Seattle Weekly.