TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Feb 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Feb 2016

Journal Name: February 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 2

He was a country lawyer from the booming metropolis of Charleston, Arkansas. He was the best lawyer in Charleston. He was the only lawyer in Charleston. From the title of his wonderful autobiography, he was “the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town.”

He was a trial lawyer who could move juries to tears with his oratory.

On Jan. 21, 1999, this old Arkansas trial lawyer made what would be remembered as “one of the greatest final arguments ever given in an American courtroom.”

Actually, his closing argument wasn’t made in a courtroom or even a courthouse. And the jury he presented it to wasn’t sitting in a jury box. They were sitting on the floor of the United States Senate in the Capitol.

The trial lawyer was Dale Bumpers. His client was the president of the United States, a fellow Arkansan, William Jefferson Clinton. The jury was the members of the United States Senate, and the trial was the impeachment of President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. What the case came down to was that President Clinton had had an affair with a young White House intern and then lied about it under oath.

Dale Bumpers the trial lawyer knew the “courtroom” and the jury well. He had served with many of the jury members when he himself had been a United States Senator from Arkansas from 1975 through 1998.

All good trial lawyers know that you have to be totally candid with a jury and acknowledge the weaknesses in your own case. In fact, telling a jury the weaknesses in your case is one of the best ways to win a trial, as juries appreciate such honesty and, for the most part, can be very forgiving people.

And so right at the outset of his closing argument on behalf of President Clinton, Dale Bumpers said that what his client had done was “indefensible, outrageous, unforgiveable and shameless.” He admitted that his client had done a bad thing and had lied about it.

He then quite honestly and candidly told the jury of United States Senators that the case against his client, the president, was all about sex. Bumpers said, “Mark Twain once said, ‘When they say it’s not about money, that means … it’s about money.’ And similarly, when they say this is not about sex, that means it’s about … sex.”

Bumpers then got to the heart of the defense of his client: Sexual infidelity and lying about it, even to a grand jury, was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they put in the Constitution that “high crimes and misdemeanors” was the basis for removing a president from office.

During his career as a country trial lawyer, Dale Bumpers had tried hundreds of divorce cases. In his closing argument on behalf of President Clinton, he referred to that history, claiming that whenever one party was charged with adultery, “they almost always lied about it.” Bumpers told the Senate jury, “There is a very big difference in perjury about a marital infidelity in a divorce case and perjury about whether I bought the murder weapon or whether I concealed the murder weapon. And to charge somebody with the first and punish them as though it were the second stands justice on its head.”

Now think about this. In one of the biggest trials in American legal history, the president of the United States was being defended by an Arkansas divorce lawyer.

He was the perfect lawyer for the job. The president of the United States could not have had a better defense lawyer than a country lawyer from Charleston, Arkansas, who had tried hundreds of divorce cases.

Dale Bumpers won that trial. The president of the United States was acquitted on both charges and served the remaining two years of his presidency.

Regardless of how one feels about President Bill Clinton, and whether he was guilty of a high crime or misdemeanor, there is no debate that the performance of his Arkansas trial lawyer was masterful.

After the trial, Dale Bumpers returned to law practice with offices in Washington and Little Rock. But he never tried another case, either impeachment or divorce.
Dale Bumpers died on Jan. 2 in Little Rock. He was 90 years old.

He will be remembered for his service to his country as a Marine, a governor, and a United States senator.

But most of all, he will be remembered as a country lawyer from Arkansas who used his experience in divorce cases to successfully defend the president of the United States.

He was much more than the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.