The "rule of law," that oft-quoted legal phrase used by Republicans to accuse President Clinton of impeachable offenses and by Democrats to defend him, is a simple proposition rooted in the belief that no man is above the law.
Legal experts believe it means simply what it says: how the law rules, or determines, what judgments can be applied fairly, based on the facts and the evidence. But how the rule literally applies seems to be open to further interpretation.
The House Judiciary Committee, in impeachment articles sent to the floor for debate, liberally used the term to accuse the president of wrongdoing. The committee said Mr. Clinton failed to "uphold the rule of law" when he falsely testified in a civil suit and before a federal grand jury. For that, the panel said, Mr. Clinton "disgraced himself and the high office he holds."
The committee's majority counsel, David P. Schippers, cited the rule of law in saying Mr. Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones case and before the Monica Lewinsky grand jury.
"He lied to the people. He lied to his Cabinet. He lied to his top aides. And now he's lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There's no one left to lie to," Mr. Schippers said. "Apart from all else, the president's illegal actions constitute an attack upon and utter disregard for the truth and for the rule of law."
Even the Dulles-area chapter of the National Organization for Women cited the rule of law in calling for Mr. Clinton's resignation. The group, at odds with its national leadership, said it was "with pride" its members watched GOP members of the Judiciary Committee "defend sexual harassment legislation, the indivisibility of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the rule of law and the Constitution."
But White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, in testifying before the committee, invoked the rule of law to defend Mr. Clinton. He said that while no one would defend the morality of Mr. Clinton's personal conduct, the president had admitted his actions were wrong.
"The president knows that what he did was wrong," he said. "He has admitted it. He has suffered privately and publicly. He is prepared to accept the obloquy that flows from his misconduct, and he recognizes that, like any citizen, he is and will be subject to the rule of law."
Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor who testified as a witness for Mr. Clinton, said he would not defend the …