June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

IN DYERSBURG, TENN. (POP. 20,000), Judge David Lanier embodied the law. Tall, portly and carefully coiffed, Lanier neither smoked, drank nor used profanity. He also wielded considerable power. “He handled adoptions, child custody cases, divorces. If your kids got in trouble, you’d see him in juvenile court. And when you died, he probated your will,” says Joey McDowell, a police investigator in Dyersburg. “Cradle to grave, he controlled everything.”

Except, it turned out, himself. Four years ago, Lanier, now 62, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on two felony and five misdemeanor counts of using the power of his office to violate the civil rights of five women by sexually assaulting them in his chambers. The conviction was overturned last year because Lanier was tried under a federal civil-rights statute, which, a U.S. appeals court ruled, did not apply to sex crimes, even those committed by federal officials. On March 31, though, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law could apply—a decision that may also have ramifications in Paula Jones’s suit against President Clinton. Her suit is civil, not criminal, but A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia, says the Supreme Court’s ruling against Lanier “would certainly be favorable, not unfavorable, to a cause of action like Paula Jones’s.”

Whatever its implications, the case against Lanier involved a grotesque abuse of power. The judge’s family had long ruled Dyer County, some 70 miles north of Memphis, like a fiefdom. His father, James Parker Lanier, created a formidable political machine while serving as county clerk from 1938 to 1962. So it was no surprise that after David graduated with a law degree from the University of Tennessee, he went into the family business, becoming mayor of Dyersburg in 1965, at the age of 31. Defeated for an eighth term in 1979, Lanier, married and the father of two daughters, was elected to the influential post of chancery court judge in 1982.

Eight years later police were investigating Lanier for taking kickbacks from local lawyers. When they began hearing that he had groped and even raped women, their investigation switched focus. Convinced that local prosecutors—Lanier’s brother James was elected Dyer County district attorney in 1990—would never take on the judge, they turned to the FBI. The feds heard from dozens of women who claimed Lanier harassed them, eight of whom testified.

One, Sandy Sanders, now 37, maintained that while she was a youth-services officer for the county, Lanier fondled her twice. In 1989 she was sitting in a chair in his office when, she says, he came over and grabbed her breast. “I knocked his hand away,” she recalls. “I was shocked and stunned, it happened so fast.” Court clerk Patty Wallace, 38, said that in 1988, during a court session, Lanier had reached under a table and rubbed her leg. The groping lasted 45 minutes, with Wallace trying to inch away but otherwise maintaining her composure so as not to make a scene. Fearing Lanier’s influence in town, she didn’t report the assault to authorities, but she was apprehensive he might try something again. “I had to have surgery because I was grinding my teeth so bad at night,” she says. “I was ready to shoot myself.”

The most egregious assault involved Vivian Archie, now 30. In 1990, Archie interviewed with Lanier for a job as his secretary. Newly divorced, with a 20-month-old daughter, she was desperate for a steady paycheck. When she shook the judge’s hand at the end of her interview, he pinned her down in an armchair and, while pinching her throat and neck and pulling her hair, ordered her to perform oral sex. “He told me he would take my daughter away from me if I ever said anything,” says Archie. Terrified, she kept quiet but, shattered by the experience, plunged into depression and became addicted to cocaine and pills. She was virtually suicidal when the FBI approached her in 1991 to talk about Lanier. “When they came to me, I felt relieved,” she says. “It started bubbling out of me, and I told them everything.” She kicked her addictions and became the government’s star witness.

At his three-week trial in Memphis, which began on Dec. 1, 1992, Lanier denied assaulting anyone. “I have never forced myself on any woman at any time,” he told the court. “I’m a hugging-type person.” Publicly, Lanier portrayed his accusers as loose women who had engaged in consensual sex. Around Dyersburg many tended to agree with the judge, seeing his prosecution as some sort of political vendetta. “Nobody in Dyersburg supported us when this first came out,” says Archie, who moved to Orlando to escape the hostility. “We were called sluts, whores.”

The federal jury that convicted Lanier saw things differently—though he was found not guilty of groping Wallace, because she hadn’t pushed his hand away. Two years into his 25-year sentence, the sixth circuit court of appeals overturned the verdict. While the case now goes back through the appeals process as the Supreme Court has ordered, Lanier, divorced and reportedly living in California, is free. But Archie, who has a second daughter, Scarlett, 2, and works as a legal secretary, is confident he will yet feel justice’s sting. “We sacrificed a lot to get our dignity back,” she says. “And now is not the time to stop. He took away my rights. He made me feel like nothing.”

BILL HEWITT

CINDY DAMPIER in Orlando, KATE KLISE in Dyersburg and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington

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