WASHINGTON - A single U.S. District Court judge has declared President Clinton in criminal violation of federal law, held two of the president's most esteemed Cabinet secretaries in contempt of court, compared an administration official to "con artists and hooligans," and accused top White House officials of having "run amok."
If former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was Clinton's dogged prosecutor, Royce Lamberth has become his hanging judge, the man whose courtroom has become a chamber of horrors for the White House.
It's not that he has it in for this White House, Lamberth insisted.
"A fairer criticism is whether I'm too hard on the government, not necessarily Bill Clinton," he conceded. "I do think I hold the government to a high standard, and I think all judges should."
Not everyone is so sure of his impartiality. To some, the linguistic sting of Lamberth's rulings and the long leash he has given Clinton's legal pursuers smack of bias.
The Justice Department and the White House have had five lawyers assigned almost exclusively to responding to document requests on one case, a class-action suit filed by former Republican White House aides who say Clinton officials violated their privacy rights by riffling through their FBI files.
Never mind that the so-called "Filegate" case was dropped in March by Starr's successor, Robert Ray, who found no "substantial and credible evidence" of wrongdoing. Before Lamberth's bench, the case continues, sprawling out to include matters as diverse as Kathleen Willey's accusations that Clinton groped her and Linda Tripp's allegations that the Pentagon violated her privacy rights.
Clinton administration lawyers complain that Lamberth has found no lead or accusation too insignificant to pursue.
'Off on these tirades'
Two weeks ago, Lamberth dismissed a motion by Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon to have the Tripp privacy lawsuit given to another judge. Lamberth insisted he had no biases or preconceived notions about the case, even as he decried the government's "dilatory tactics," expressed his "considerable frustration" with the Pentagon and the Justice Department, and denounced the government lawyers' "singularly unhelpful" affidavits.
"Whatever the merits or substance of the case, he goes off on these tirades," said Ira Magaziner, a former senior White House official who has felt the sting of Lamberth's rulings. "He cites no evidence when he does it, and he plays fast and loose with people's reputations."
In fact, it is not so easy to pigeonhole the flamboyant, 56-year-old Texan as a right-wing, anti-Clinton judge. Lamberth is a hero not just to Clinton critics but to dispossessed minority plaintiffs, impoverished Indian tribes, even to distraught parents looking for vengeance on terrorists.
"He's a person you can trust," said Elouise Cobell, a Blackfoot Indian leader who has sought an accounting before Lamberth of billions of dollars lost from the government's allegedly mismanaged Native American trust funds. "We should clone him as a judge."
A blunt jurist
Lamberth is quite blunt about his reputation. "I don't shrink from ruling on things, and I don't shrink from saying what I think is right," he said, chuckling. "Many judges would sugar-coat their language more than I do, and many judges would just gloss over issues that are presented. I just think judges are paid to rule."
When President Ronald Reagan appointed Lamberth to the bench in 1987, Washington lawyers figured his long career as a federal attorney - first with the Army, then as a U.S. attorney and finally as the chief of the Justice Department's civil division - had instilled sympathies for the government's cases. Instead, that career seems to have produced a deep suspicion of federal barristers.
"He knows all the tricks," said Stuart Newberger, a Washington attorney who worked for Lamberth at the Justice Department.
In March, Lamberth declared Clinton in criminal violation of the federal Privacy Act for publicly releasing friendly letters from Willey, the former White House volunteer who accused the president of making sexual advances. That broadside was delivered though the Willey accusations had nothing to do with the case before the court.
In May, an appeals court rebuked Lamberth for his declaration of presidential illegality, saying: "It was inappropriate for the district court gratuitously to invoke sweeping pronouncements on alleged criminal activity that extended well beyond what was necessary to decide the matter at hand."
But those "sweeping pronouncements" were only Lamberth's most recent.
Last year, he found Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt of court, saying they showed "flagrant disregard" for his orders to turn over documents related to the Indian trust funds.
"The federal government here did not just stub its toe," Lamberth wrote. "It abused the rights of the [Native Americans] to obtain these trust documents, and it engaged in a shocking pattern of deception of the court."
In 1998, Lamberth lambasted former Commerce Department general counsel Ginger Lew for allegedly destroying documents sought by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch for its lawsuit against the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.
"Why a high-level government employee like Ms. Lew would play these games, usually reserved for con artists and hooligans, is impossible for the court to fathom," Lamberth wrote.
In 1997, he accused Magaziner, the one-time White House aide, of lying to the court to thwart a physicians group's lawsuit seeking information about the drafting of Clinton's failed universal health care proposal.
"It is clear that the decisions here were made at the highest levels of government, and the government itself is - and should be - accountable when its officials run amok," Lamberth wrote, ordering the government to pay the doctors group $285,865 in attorney fees.
To those who have benefited from such language, Lamberth is a judge unafraid to speak the truth.
"I think the facts and circumstances required it," said Tom Spencer, the lawyer who represented the physicians group against Magaziner.
Lamberth said he is only doing his job, one that he believes other judges are too willing to shirk.
He said that when he was practicing law, he "didn't like it when judges figured out ways like, 'Well, if I don't rule, [I] can't get reversed,' or 'If I force them to settle, you can't get reversed,'" he said. "When I see a wrong, I see it's my duty to correct it."
Shades of gray
To others, Lamberth's rulings smack of intemperance, if not grandstanding. "His conclusions do not recognize shades of gray," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University legal ethicist who has followed Lamberth's rulings.
In most of these rulings, an administration fearful of antagonizing the judge has quietly acquiesced. But Magaziner fought back, filing an appeal that accused Lamberth of wreaking irreparable personal and professional injury on him. In August, the appellate court reversed Lamberth's sanction of Magaziner, declaring the judge's decision "clearly erroneous."
Lamberth's opinions have been as groundbreaking as they have been nerve-racking. In 1990, he nearly upended President George Bush's entire savings and loan bailout by invalidating all the actions of the nation's top savings and loan regulator and declaring the official's appointment unconstitutional - proof, he said, of his bipartisanship. "If [George W.] Bush is head of the next administration, he can ask his dad [about me]," Lamberth said.
In 1995, Lamberth sided with Clinton's future impeachment lawyer, Gregory Craig, and declared the 147-year-old U.S. extradition system unconstitutional, in a decision that Northwestern University extradition expert Steven Lubet called "loopy almost beyond description." Eight months later, an appeals court vacated the ruling.
In 1998, he decided that Iran was liable for $247.5 million in damages to the family of Alisa Flatow, an American student killed by terrorists in Israel. The ruling made him a legend to survivors of terrorism but has given the State Department fits. Iran hasn't paid a cent, and diplomats fear that Congress will demand the seizure and sale of Iranian assets in the United States to pay the family, possibly inviting retaliation in kind by Iran and other nations hostile to the United States.
Reversals of Lamberth's rulings are relatively common. A 1993 Legal Times study of the judges of the District of Columbia's federal appellate court found that Lamberth's reversal rate was 24 percent, the second highest of the 18 judges studied. No similar studies have since been done.
But Lamberth's record has defenders in unlikely places. Stanley Brand, a prominent Democratic attorney, said he sees no political motives in the judge's record.
"That's his profile. That's his M.O.," Brand said of Lamberth's sometimes harsh rulings.
As for reversals, Brand added, "Judge Lamberth isn't the first to be reversed for being bold and mistaken. That happens every day."