Did Clinton Lie?: Defining 'Sexual Relations'

45 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2003 Last revised: 1 Oct 2010

See all articles by Peter Tiersma

Peter Tiersma

Loyola Marymount University, Loyola Law School (Deceased)

Date Written: October 29, 2010


With the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton now well behind us, we can step back and consider the matter somewhat more dispassionately. The focus of the impeachment hearings was that Clinton perjured himself and engaged in obstruction of justice. I limit my observations to the question of whether he committed perjury, and in particular whether he lied when he denied having a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

When Clinton was first asked during a deposition whether he had ever had an affair or sexual relationship with Lewinsky, he quite explicitly denied it. He was asked about his denials during a second legal proceeding - his testimony before a grand jury - when he was again placed under oath. Clinton insisted that his denials were true based on the ordinary understanding of these terms. In other words, he appealed to usage of that phrase in the speech community. His lawyers during the impeachment made similar arguments on the basis of dictionary definitions. Because there seems to be a great deal of variation in how people use this phrase, I will argue that Clinton's defenders were largely correct on this point.

The lawyers examining the president were obviously aware of the dangers of using such a slippery term, so they introduced a definition of sexual relations into evidence during the deposition and then asked Clinton whether, under that rather convoluted definition, he had engaged in sexual relations with Lewinsky. Clinton again denied having done so, but was later forced to admit to at least some sexual activity with the former intern. During the subsequent grand jury proceedings he was also interrogated on his denials of having sexual relations, as defined. His defense consisted of an extremely literalistic dissection of the words of the definition. I will suggest that a large part of the problem is that the definition had largely been textualized. A result of textualization is that the resulting text invites a very literal and sometimes even hypertechnical interpretation, and Clinton was only to happy to comply.

Suggested Citation

Tiersma, Peter M., Did Clinton Lie?: Defining 'Sexual Relations' (October 29, 2010). 79 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 927 (2004), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=470645 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.470645

Peter M. Tiersma (Contact Author)

Loyola Marymount University, Loyola Law School (Deceased)

United States

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