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As a U.S. district judge, Susan Webber Wright received international attention during the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones against U.S. president Bill Clinton. Wright later made global headlines in a landmark decision when she found Clinton, as president of the United States, to be in civil contempt of court.
Susan Webber was born in Texarkana (Miller County) on September 6, 1948, to Betty Webber and attorney Thomas E. Webber III; she had one younger sister. When Webber was sixteen years old, her father died, and her mother went to work at a bank to provide for the family. Webber won a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1970.
Webber earned another scholarship that enabled her to return to Arkansas, receiving a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1973. Paying for tuition with earnings from summer and part-time jobs, she enrolled in the University of Arkansas School of Law, from which she graduated in 1975. She became the first woman to edit the Arkansas Law Review.
Bill Clinton was teaching at the UA School of Law when Webber took his course in admiralty law. Clinton became involved in his first political campaign, running in 1974 against popular incumbent Republican congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt. Amid distractions, Clinton lost a batch of final exams, including Webber’s. Clinton offered to give his students a B+ for the course in lieu of re-taking the exam. As potential valedictorian, Webber needed a better grade. After meeting with Hillary Rodham, who also taught at the UA School of Law, Webber took the exam again and received an A, though she ultimately was not named valedictorian. She volunteered for Hammerschmidt’s reelection campaign, which he won.
After graduation, Webber clerked at the office of J. Smith Henley of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1975–76. In 1976, Webber joined the newly formed University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law), where she served as a faculty member and assistant dean until 1990. She earned a strong reputation as a scholar in oil, gas, and mineral rights law.
During that period, she also served as a research assistant for the Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1979 and was a visiting professor at the UA School of Law in Fayetteville, the Ohio State University College of Law, and Louisiana State University’s Law Center. In 1983, Webber married Robert R. Wright III, a distinguished law professor who had been one of the founders of the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. The couple had a daughter, Robin.
Although for the most part she was not active politically, Susan Webber Wright headed a local group of lawyers supporting George H. W. Bush in 1988. Recommended by the state’s ranking Republican, John Paul Hammerschmidt, in 1989, Wright was appointed to a federal judgeship by President Bush. She was commissioned to serve as U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas beginning in 1990.
In 1998, Wright traveled from Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Washington DC, where she presided at the deposition of her former law professor, President Bill Clinton. With the world watching the outcome, Clinton testified under oath for Wright in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.
Wright declined to grant Clinton presidential immunity against the lawsuit, but she did rule that a sitting president could not be sued, thus deferring a trial until after the end of his presidential term. The latter ruling was later overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Clinton petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm Wright’s ruling, but the Court unanimously upheld the decision of the Eighth Circuit, allowing a trial in the Jones lawsuit while Clinton was still in office. Wright granted summary judgment to Clinton in a ruling stating that she believed the Jones case to be without legal merit. Clinton and Jones settled out of court.
In 1999, amid sexual harassment allegations against Clinton involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Wright cited Clinton for contempt of court, fining him for lying under oath. It was the first time a sitting president was sanctioned for disobeying a court order. Wright was widely quoted as saying that “the court takes no pleasure in imposing contempt sanctions against this nation’s President and...grows weary of this matter.”
Wright was also involved with the Whitewater investigation, issuing rulings that were both favorable and unfavorable to Clinton. Wright imprisoned Susan McDougal for the maximum eighteen months for civil contempt of court for refusing to answer questions about Clinton.
After her husband died in 2006, Wright remarried and became known as Susan Webber Carter. In 2009, she was appointed to a seven-year term on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by U.S. chief justice John Roberts.
In 2012, she announced her judicial retirement effective August 2013.
For additional information:
“Judge Susan Webber Wright Commencement Address to the 2015 University of Arkansas School of Law.” C-Span. http://www.c-span.org/video/?325460-1/judge-susan-webber-wright-commencement-address-university-arkansas-school-law (accessed May 9, 2017).
“Profile: Susan Webber Wright.” CBS News. April 1, 1998. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/profile-susan-webber-wright (accessed May 9, 2017).
Toobin, Jeffrey. A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President. New York: Random House, 1999.
Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 5/9/2017
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