Linda Tripp’s indictment on two charges of illegal wiretapping
may have been a necessary vindication of the rule of law, as the Maryland state
prosecutor insists. But actually sending her to prison-a conviction on either
felony count carries a maximum sentence of five years-would constitute terrible
and unwarranted punishment of a woman who already is enduring a life sentence
of public humiliation.
Even if decency did not
argue against the imprisonment of Ms. Tripp, there are other good reasons why
she should be allowed to arrange some lesser sanction for her offense. Much as
conservatives might insist otherwise, the proper aim of the courts is justice,
not vengeance. The fact that she and her friends tried to abuse the law for bad
motives is no reason for the law to be misused against her (even though
Lucianne Goldberg’s grandstanding offer to go to jail in Ms. Tripp’s place is
It’s not easy to advocate mercy for Ms. Tripp. She committed
a miserable act of betrayal against Monica Lewinsky. She did so, moreover, not
to protect herself, as she continues to claim, but in pursuit of personal
profit and political mayhem, as the tapes of her conversations with Ms.
Goldberg have proved. She taped Ms.
Lewinsky and then disseminated those recordings after she had been warned that
it was unlawful to do so.
Worse still, she seems
wholly unrepentant, spewing fresh outrages and lies almost every time she opens
her mouth. She regards herself as a noble “whistle-blower,” when everyone knows
she was only a scheming voyeur. Her latest obnoxious pronouncement-that Hillary
Rodham Clinton and Lieut. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland are
lurking behind her legal troubles-only underscores the fraudulence of her claim
that she is the victim of a “political prosecution.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Tripp’s
friends on the right cannot be of much help to her anymore. Having insisted all
last year that even the President must be subject to “the rule of law,” they
become hypocrites when they suddenly demand leniency for Ms. Tripp.
Yet despite all that,
she should be permitted to negotiate a deal, pay a small fine or perform some
community service, and go home.
The statute under which
she has been indicted is a foolish contrivance that is not often invoked even
in the few states that have tried to outlaw so-called “one-party” telephone
recording. Although state officials have said that such cases are prosecuted
sometimes on the county level, an assistant state prosecutor in Maryland with
16 years’ experience told me he has never actually heard of anyone being
prosecuted under the statute before; he was even more certain that nobody has
actually done time for this “crime.” Maryland’s highest court was so ambivalent
about the criminalization of one-party taping that the State Legislature
amended the law to make ignorance a valid defense-which is not the case in
other criminal proceedings, there or elsewhere.
The prosecution of Ms.
Tripp may also jeopardize important constitutional rights. Under a grant of
immunity from the independent counsel, she provided information that would tend
to incriminate her. The Maryland authorities have not only sought to obtain
that evidence, in possible violation of the Fifth Amendment, but they also
attempted to call her former attorney before the grand jury in a blatant breach
of attorney-client privilege.
Those civil liberties concerns have to be balanced against
respect for the law, as the state’s attorney in Howard County, Marna McLendon,
noted in endorsing the Tripp prosecution. “People are waiting to see what the
message is for this alleged violation of the Maryland wiretap law,” Ms.
McLendon, a Republican, told the Baltimore
Sun . “There is this issue of accountability, because there is sufficient
evidence to move forward.”
A wiser solution may be
found in a Maryland legal procedure known as “probation before judgment,” which
resembles a plea bargain except that no finding of guilt is necessarily entered
on the record. If she is willing, Ms. Tripp could be appropriately sanctioned
without a trial or a criminal record-a proportionate response, like the sanctions
recently accepted by the President in the Paula Jones lawsuit. (Based on her
remarks about the First Lady and her grandiose view of her own behavior, Ms.
Tripp may also need professional counseling.)
It shouldn’t be necessary to recapitulate all the mean televised
mockery and public opprobrium inflicted on Ms. Tripp since January 1998 to
suggest that she has suffered enough. The one citizen who may remain
justifiably unsatisfied is Monica Lewinsky, and Ms. Lewinsky has chosen not to
pursue a civil lawsuit against her former friend. While there are others who
surely deserve to be held accountable and probably will not be, including
Kenneth Starr, that doesn’t mean Ms. Tripp should be treated as a scapegoat.
Her case challenges everyone, and especially liberals, to
consider what we mean when we praise ourselves as “compassionate.” Feeling
sorry for the innocent victim is never difficult. The truer test of compassion
is to be merciful and just toward those whom you have every reason to despise.