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14 October 1998

Smile-a-while: There goes the judge

Synopsis: A TV jurist appeared on Hardball--and experienced a few technical difficulties.

Commentary by Ed Koch, Tom Squitieri
Hardball, CNBC, 10/12/98

We’ve admired The People’s Court ever since the days when Judge Wapner impressed the nation with his thoughtful snap judgments, settling two cases per half hour session, leaving time for commercials and interviews. His sidekick, Doug Llewellyn, would chat up puzzled litigants as they were hustled out the side of Wapner’s courtroom, and Llewellyn’s agit-prop style clearly paved the way for the current work of InterNight’s John Gibson.

So maybe it wasn’t all that strange, what happened on Hardball on Monday night, when Tom Squitieri of USA Today suddenly made a surprising proposal. People’s Court judge Ed Koch had joined the gang, to chat about Clinton impeachment proceedings, and Squitieri suddenly blabbed out a thought that’s been on more than a few people’s minds:

SQUITIERI: Hey mayor, I wanted to know something. If indeed someone came to you or to somebody else--and this is not as ludicrous as it may sound--came to you and said, “We just need a third party, someone to sort of mediate between us all now, because it’s all very confusing,” would you or somebody else be willing to sort of step in and sort of hear all sides and adjudicate it in a sense of getting a reasonable and quick solution?

The only thing that bothered us was, what could possibly seem “ludicrous” about that? Why in the world would the modest Squitieri undercut his own proposal? What could possibly make more sense, than to have the judge on The People’s Court step in to decide an impeachment? It could be done as part of an hour-long special, to make sure that Koch time to think. Any hint of rush or hurry might undermine the majesty of the event.

All the panelists held their breath. Finally, the jurist said yes:

KOCH: Listen--sure. The fact is, the Times had a cartoon in which they suggested that four of the judges on television be the mediators.

So it could be an actual panel of judges! Sort of a Judge Judy at Nuremberg format!

But we do have one problem with Squitieri’s proposal. Based on Koch’s other comments on the show, he’s not exactly up to speed on the basic facts of the case. In his Hardball comments on the Clinton impeachment, Koch threw off a succession of factual howlers. Understandably, it looks like he’s been too busy ruling on who-keeps-the-dog to stay current with the facts of this matter.

A tabloid talker turned to Koch early on, as the gang was discussing the Paula Jones case:

KOCH: I happen to think and I think most Americans think that Paula Jones was absolutely honest in her description of what the president did, but it’s not an impeachable offense and there is where I part company with those who are trying to bring the president down.

Hmmm. Obviously, Clinton’s alleged conduct with Paula Jones plays no part in the impeachment charges. Instantly, Koch was shaping up as a distinguished jurist who hadn’t quite mastered this case.

Minutes later, Joe Cammarata asserted, dimly, that earlier comments by Koch implied that Koch thought lying under oath “was OK” (see “Life in this celebrity press corps,” 10/14/98). Koch spoke in his own defense:

KOCH: Let me respond to that. There is a difference between lying and perjury, and you know it. Let me finish! The fact is, in order to establish perjury, it must be germane material, and no other conclusion can be reached.

It would have been an excellent point only a few weeks before. But David Schippers had dropped the use of “perjury” as a technical charge against Clinton in his presentation to the House Judiciary Committee The point had been cited through the press for a week at the time the excited judge spoke.

Finally, the crew was speculatin’ just a tad about possible new charges concerning Kathleen Willey:

KOCH: Can I break in? Listen to this. Starr had an opportunity when Clinton was before the grand jury to ask him about every single situation--sexual involvement with other women, Filegate, Travelgate--and asked not one such question.

But, as a tabloid talker quickly noted, Clinton had been asked questions about Kathleen Willey! It was that fact (among others) that had raised speculation that there may be future charges in the Willey case.

Oh well. The judge isn’t up to speed yet on impeachment issues. But why not look on the bright side too? He did fit right in on Hardball.

Postscript: You’re going to say that Squitieri was kidding--that we’re just pretending his proposal was serious. It may be that the earnest scribe spoke in jest. But we called in body language experts to study the matter, and there was no sign of jest found on the tape.