Judge Found For Clinton Disbarment

After a week of deliberating, recently appointed Judge Leon Johnson has decided to preside over the disbarment case against President Clinton, a court clerk said Tuesday.

The decision comes after four other judges all stepped aside from Mr. Clinton's case, citing the appearance of conflicts of interest because of ties to the former Arkansas governor. Johnson was assigned the case July 5 and has been considering whether to keep it.

The judge called the clerk's office Tuesday morning and said he would accept the case, said Sherry Bruno, a supervisor in the office.

As presiding judge, Johnson will decide whether to follow the recommendation of a state Supreme Court committee and strip Mr. Clinton of his Arkansas law license because of his misleading testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the Paul Jones sexual harassment case.

The committee based its lawsuit on complaints filed by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who presided over the Jones case, and by the Atlanta-based Southeastern Legal Foundation. Wright had cited Mr. Clinton for contempt and fined him $90,000.

Any decision Johnson makes ultimately could be reviewed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The high court's Committee on Professional Conduct sued to disbar Mr. Clinton on June 30. Pulaski County Circuit Judge John Ward, originally assigned the case, declined it the same day.

Judges David Bogard and John Plegge recused July 3 and Judge Chris Piazza stepped aside July 5, leaving the case to Johnson.

Johnson, a Little Rock lawyer, was appointed to the bench June 2 by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee to replace a judge ousted by the Supreme Court because of ethical violations.

Huckabee's spokesman has said Johnson's political affiliation was not a factor in his appointment. Voting records show that Johnson cast Democratic ballots in the May 23 primary election and the 1998 primary runoff election. Johnson has not voted in a Republican primary.

If Mr. Clinton's trial is not concluded by the end of the year, when Johnson's term expires, it would be transferred to Johnson's elected successor. Democrat Willard Proctor is running unopposed for judgeship for a term beginning in 2001.

Johnson's decision to hear the case clears the last procedural hurdle for the legal process to move forward. Bruno said the clerk's office had waited to label the case file because of the string of recusals, but would now do so.

Mr. Clinton has 30 days from the time he was served with the lawsuit to file a response in Pulaski County Circuit Court. The president has said he will fight the disbarment attempt.