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On The Case In Arkansas

By Adam Cohen

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(TIME, June 9) -- Arkansans like to complain that small states are misunderstood. Sure, many of the movers and shakers know one another from their days at the university, live in the same neighborhoods and marry into one another's families. It's not conspiracy, Arkansans say; it's proximity.

And as Paula Jones' suit heads back to Arkansas, it will return to the courtroom of a federal judge whose path has frequently crossed Clinton's. In the mid-'70s, Susan Webber Wright was a student in Professor Clinton's admiralty-law class at the University of Arkansas School of Law. A Republican, Wright worked against Clinton when he ran for Congress in 1974. But later he named Wright's law-professor husband to the Arkansas Supreme Court for the limited purpose of resolving one case.

So what does all this history suggest? Wright's friends insist that the Bush appointee will make her decisions strictly on the merits. "The notion that some special relationship between her and the President will affect her actions strikes me as entirely misplaced," says the dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, Leonard Strickman. In fact, she has ruled both for and against Clinton on important matters. Her decision to jail Susan McDougal for not answering Whitewater questions was a public relations disaster for the White House. But Wright also ruled that Jones' case had to wait until the end of Clinton's presidency, a decision reversed by the high court last week.

One thing is clear: Wright will have substantial discretion in deciding how the case will proceed. If Clinton is sweating anything, it may be a little law-school slipup from two decades ago. The year Wright was his student, Clinton left his class's exam books in his car, and they ended up lost or stolen. Wright may have a well-deserved reputation for fairness, but the President has to hope that this academic-minded judge doesn't hold a grudge.