LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Delivering a post-impeachment rebuke, an Arkansas Supreme Court committee decided Monday that President Clinton should be disbarred for ''serious misconduct'' in the Paula Jones case and began the court proceeding to strip him of his law license.
A majority of the panelists who met on Friday said the president should be disciplined for denying a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky during a deposition he gave in the Jones sexual harassment case in January 1998.
The recommendation from the Committee of Professional Conduct now goes to a Circuit Court judge in Little Rock for disbarment proceedings. If the judge disbars Clinton, the president can appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Clinton attorney David Kendall said in a statement: ''This recommendation is wrong and clearly contradicted by precedent. We will vigorously dispute it in a court of law.''
Clinton told ''NBC Nightly News'' that he will not personally defend himself at the disbarment proceedings because it would interfere with his duties as president. He also said the committee was responding too harshly to his testimony that he has labeled as ''legally accurate.''
''The only reason I agreed even to an appeal of this is, my lawyers looked at all the precedents and they said, 'There's no way in the world if they just treat you like everybody else has been treated, that this is even close to that kind of case,''' he said.
The action against Clinton's license marks the third form of punishment the president has faced for his false testimony in the Jones case. He was impeached by the House, then acquitted at a Senate trial. And a federal judge fined him after finding him in contempt of court.
The president has insisted that he did not lie when he denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky; he has said that the relationship did not meet the definition of sex that was given at the start of the deposition.
Clinton, who was Arkansas governor from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1983 until he was elected president in 1992, has been a lawyer for more than 25 years and taught at the University of Arkansas law school. He has not practiced since the early 1980s, between his first and second terms as governor.
''This action is being taken against (Clinton) as a result of the formal complaints ... and the findings by a majority of the committee that certain of the attorney's conduct, as demonstrated in the complaint, constituted serious misconduct,'' in violation of state rules governing lawyers, the disciplinary committee's executive director, James Neal, said in a letter to the court Monday.
The committee has 14 full-time members - lawyers and nonlawyers - who sit in panels of seven. Because of Clinton's widespread connections throughout the state, eight of the panelists bowed out before Friday's meeting, most of them citing potential conflicts of interest.
Of the six who heard Clinton's case, five are lawyers and the sixth is a retired schoolteacher. At least two are Democrats; three have not identified their affiliation because voters are not required to do so in Arkansas. Whether the sixth member has identified a party affiliation could not be determined.
The Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm in Atlanta, and U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who presided over the Jones case, had filed the complaints against Clinton with the committee. The foundation wanted Clinton disbarred; Wright - who last year cited Clinton for civil contempt and fined him $90,000 for giving ''intentionally false'' testimony - did not suggest a specific penalty from the committee.
''This is a confirmation that the legal system will police its own, regardless of the position held by the attorney in question,'' said Matt Glavin, president of the foundation. ''Remember, this is the first time in American history that a sitting president faced disciplinary proceedings.''
President Nixon was disbarred by a New York court after resigning over the Watergate scandal in 1974.
Clinton sought something no harsher than a letter of reprimand, according to Glavin. The president's defense has been sealed.
In response, the foundation cited the Nixon case, saying the court that disbarred him ''said the offense was made worse because Nixon was president at the time 'and in a position of public trust.'''
The foundation also cited a 1998 disbarment case in which the Arkansas Supreme Court wrote: ''There simply is no place in the law for a person who will not or cannot tell the truth in court, even when his or her own interests are involved.''
In his deposition, Clinton said: ''I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.'' He acknowledged Aug. 17 before a federal grand jury - and again in a nationally televised address - that he had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.
In Jones' harassment case, the former state employee alleged that Clinton exposed himself to her and made a sexual advance in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991.
Wright dismissed Jones' case in 1998, saying that what Clinton was alleged to have done may have been ''boorish'' but did not amount to sexual harassment. A year later, when the judge found Clinton in contempt, she said his misleading testimony had no bearing on the outcome of the case.
Jones lawyers' drew Lewinsky into the case in an attempt to show a pattern of sexual misconduct by Clinton. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr then picked up the trail, and his investigation led to Clinton's impeachment.
An attorney for Jones, Gilbert K. Davis, said the disbarment ruling was a ''victory for all Americans.''
''I look at it as a benefit to the judicial system,'' he said. ''Courts don't have police and armies to enforce their policies. It's an important lesson that needs to be driven home to Americans, that we value this system.''
Some law professors agreed with the ruling, while others said it was uncalled for.
Akhil Amar of Yale University said disbarment ''may be a good punishment that fits the crime,'' while impeachment and removal from office ''was seen as disproportionate.'' However, Amar questioned whether it would have been wiser to wait until after Clinton left office.
Paul Rothstein at Georgetown University said that ''in my view, he has been punished'' and that the committee should have recommended a reprimand at most.
''I think it is piling on,'' Rothstein said. ''I think he is being punished more for his prominence.''