T
H
E

L
I
B
E
R
T
A
R
I
A
N

E
N
T
E
R
P
R
I
S
E


I
s
s
u
e

43


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 43, December 25, 1998

Perjury Nation

By Arianna Huffington
info@ariannaonline.com

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

          The dirty little secret of our justice system is that perjury has become epidemic, yet only 1 percent of all criminal prosecutions are perjury cases. Other than tax evasion, perjury is, in fact, the least prosecuted crime in the country. The main excuse given is that prosecuting perjury on a consistent basis would overwhelm the courts. But the rule of law will not long survive if the perjury epidemic continues unchecked. Which is why it is so critical that the nation's two highest-profile alleged perjury cases -- those of O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton -- are pursued to their respective ends.
          Last [summer] Simpson's former sister-in-law Denise Brown asked a Los Angeles County grand jury to investigate whether Simpson committed perjury during his civil trial when he denied under oath ever beating his wife. Gloria Allred, Brown's attorney, said, "It is extremely important to many victims of domestic violence that this matter not be forgotten or ignored."
          It is also extremely important for the rest of us that perjury not only be punished but also be seen to be punished. In spite of the photographs of a bruised and battered Nicole Brown Simpson, the vivid details in her diaries and the phone calls to 911, Simpson denied under oath ever striking his wife. That he has not since been charged with perjury sends a terrible signal to all Americans who know about it and who are themselves tempted to lie under oath.
          In any federal civil or criminal proceeding, perjury is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Yet prosecutors I have talked to have all admitted that neither their offices nor the police have time to deal with perjury cases. This is why it is all the more urgent to procure some high-profile convictions and shatter the dangerous assumption that perjury is no big deal. As Voltaire dryly remarked, "It is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others."
          The devastating reality is that it is hard to imagine anything more destructive to the truth-seeking function of the justice system than turning a blind eye to perjury. As Todd Gaziano, former legal advisor in the Justice Department, put it, "If prosecutors, judges, and jurists cannot consistently rely on the penalty of perjury to make witnesses testify truthfully, both the civil and criminal justice systems will rot at the core."
          Of course, the most divisive perjury case our nation is grappling with involves President Clinton. The conventional wisdom was succinctly summed up by U.S. News Senior Editor Matt Miller: "Perjury about adultery," he said, "should not be a crime." But this is to confuse the shifting sands of public ethics with what should be the bedrock of the rule of law: the centuries-long prohibition against lying under oath.
          Perjury was once an offense punishable by death under common law. And another great deterrent against the temptation to lie under oath was the fear of committing the mortal sin of bearing false witness in the name of God and suffering eternal damnation. Now that for millions of Americans bearing false witness is no longer a fearful prospect spiritually, "the only real bite behind an oath," as Michael Paulsen put it in the University of Chicago Law Review, "is the specter of a perjury prosecution."
          The decades-old modern federal perjury statute makes absolutely no differentiation among various kinds of material lies -- whether about sex, power or money. And in 1994 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals categorically rejected "any suggestion, implicit or otherwise, that perjury is somehow less serious when made in a civil proceeding" -- as were both Simpson's and Clinton's alleged perjuries.
          In the president's case, if there is a new but deep-seated national consensus that perjury about sex is not perjury, then let's change the law. We would be better off amending the statute than emasculating it by drawing distinctions that reflect social attitudes and public moods but contradict the laws of the land. In Simpson's case, by brushing under the rug the overwhelming evidence that points to perjury, we are conspicuously turning the perjury laws into a toothless symbol of a decaying justice system.
          Nothing would more dramatically stem the rising tide of perjury and the growing tolerance for it than prosecutions in the two cases that -- definitely for worse -- have consumed so much of our national energy and attention.


Arianna Huffington is a popular columnist, occasional talk show host, and a person we disagree with more often than not. This column was filed on July 20, 1998, but it still contains ideas of interest. Those who would like to discuss it with her may do so at ARIANNA ONLINE, 1158 26th Street, Suite #428, Santa Monica, CA 90403, info@ariannaonline.com, or at A HREF="http://www.ariannaonline.com">http://www.ariannaonline.com


Next to advance to the next article, or
Previous to return to the previous article, or
Table of Contents to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 43, December 25, 1998.