By Arianna Huffington
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
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,
or at A HREF="http://www.ariannaonline.com">http://www.ariannaonline.com