Judge Susan Webber Wright seems to have created a new standard for what constitutes outrageous behavior. And in so doing, she may have delivered an incredibly damaging blow to the fight against workplace intimidation.
The good judge dismissed the sensational Paula Jones case on grounds there was no legal issue but added that even if Jones' allegations against Bill Clinton were true, which a considerable majority of Americans believe, his actions were merely boorish.Now the women's organizations that have been so silent during this entire incredible story must ask themselves what this means for future efforts to nail water cooler pinchers and amorous CEOs who chase their secretaries around the desk. How can they continue to use the pathetic, anemic allegations of Anita Hill as a rallying cry and ignore the judge's definition of harassment?
The judge's ruling, in fact, points up the confusing state of current law dealing with the sexual harassment issue and highlights the need for some uniform definition of what constitutes illegal behavior. If exposing oneself and making a lewd suggestion isn't outrageous, what in the world is? Men have gone to jail for less.
James Carville, the president's chief spinning wheel - a master of making things out of whole cloth - was somewhat flustered on television Sunday when asked by Jones partisan Susan Carpenter-McMillan whether he would support a law that would encompass the president's alleged action in future harassment charges. He refused to answer.
And while Carville was dodging that question, his fellow weaver of tall tales, Paul Begala, was dancing around another embarrassing inquiry about remarks from former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, who said recently that the White House staff tried not to let the president be alone with women who might bring out the darker side of his nature.
Begala cited private meetings between the president and female members of his Cabinet - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, et al - as evidence this wasn't true. Oh, my, Mr. Begala, that's a stretch, even for you.
The judge's declaration about what type of behavior the president had engaged in, assuming that the allegations are true, shows that jurists also at times have problems with common sense like the rest of us. Citing a number of precedents where the law excused this type of behavior is not good enough, and she should know this.
Admittedly, the Jones case was weak on other grounds, like failing to show that she was a victim of job discriminations following the alleged incident or that the incident effected her career in other ways. It probably should not have gotten as far as it did, but if there is any hope of successfully overturning Wright's summary judgment, much of the appeal probably will have to challenge her view of what, under the law, is outrageous.
Her view itself is outrageous.
Women's groups, generally so quick to challenge these kinds of decisions, should begin to feel a bit queasy about their lack of outrage in this case.
Wright is likely to be remembered as the person who gave mashers a whole new lease on life.