April 20, 1998 12:00 PM

Say this for Judge Susan Webber Wright: She’s not one to look for the easy way out. Twenty-four years ago, Wright, then a law student at the University of Arkansas, took a course in admiralty law from a young professor named Bill Clinton. Then, as now, the future President was organizationally scattershot and managed to lose a few exams, among them Wright’s. Clinton offered to give the affected students a B-plus on the test. But Wright wasn’t about to settle for that. She insisted she be allowed to retake the exam and subsequently went home with an A.

More recently, her willingness to do the Wright thing, regardless of the consequences, may have saved Clinton from political ruin—at least for now. With her ruling April 1 to dismiss Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against the President, Wright, 49, a U.S. district judge in Little Rock, ended a grievous public embarrassment that had plagued the Administration for four years. Wright didn’t rule out the possibility, as Jones had alleged, that then-governor Clinton exposed himself and requested oral sex in his suite at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock on May 8, 1991. But she did conclude that while such an act would be “boorish,” it did not constitute sexual harassment or deprive Jones of her civil rights. While Jones’s supporters voiced dismay over the ruling, many legal experts consider it sound. “Judge Wright showed a lot of gumption,” says Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor. “It would have been easy to toss this hot potato to a jury so she wouldn’t incur the wrath of [those] who hate her ruling.”

Friends and colleagues who know Wright, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 1990, say she does not relish such high-profile cases, but neither does she flinch from them. Born and raised in Texarkana, Ark., she knew early on that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her dashing father, Thomas E. Webber III. “I always thought my father and his friends, who were almost all lawyers, enjoyed what they did,” Wright told the Texarkana Gazette recently. One of the great traumas of Wright’s life was Webber’s death of liver failure when she was 16. For Susan, her younger sister Missy (who became an attorney but died of brain cancer in 1996) and her mother, Betty (who also died two years ago), it was a devastating time. More than 25 years later, Wright’s eyes still filled with tears when she discussed her father.

Webber’s death forced Wright’s mother to go to work at a bank, and it was only with the help of scholarships and waitressing jobs that Wright was able, in 1966, to enter Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. As shy at first as she was studious, “she opened up a lot more during her last two years,” says Ernest Duff, a professor of politics and her college adviser. “She talked more in class and was willing to challenge a professor. Susan always had conservative political views.” Wright went on to earn a master’s in public administration at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, then entered law school there. Graduating third in her class in 1975, she was the first woman elected editor-in-chief of the law review. After a series of teaching positions elsewhere, she settled in at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she taught courses in gas, oil and mineral-rights law. It was there she met Robert Wright, a highly respected law professor 17 years her senior, whom she married in 1983. They have a daughter, Robin, 11, and Wright is considered a doting mother. “Bob and Susan always make time for that child—it’s a wonderful thing to see,” says Henry Hudson, dean of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where Wright teaches Sunday school.

President Bush, for whom she had campaigned in 1988, plucked her from relative obscurity to be a federal judge. When the selection was announced, there was some carping over the fact that she had never been a trial attorney. But John Paul Hammerschmidt, then a venerable Republican congressman from Arkansas who had befriended Wright when she worked as an intern in his office in 1972, saw only promise. “She was a brilliant young lady, very much an independent thinker,” says Hammerschmidt, now 75. “She was also a rather unflappable-type person.”

That quality came in handy when the Whitewater and Jones cases landed on her docket. Not that Wright’s handling of Susan McDougal—who, along with her late ex-husband, James, was a former Clinton partner convicted of fraud in the Whitewater land deal—was without controversy. The judge infuriated many Clinton allies when she kept Susan in jail for 18 months (she finished that sentence in March to begin serving two years for fraud) on contempt charges for refusing to testify about her dealings with the President. To some observers, the clash of wills between the straitlaced Wright and the vivacious McDougal went deeper than the law. “Wright’s said to be kind of a prig,” says Gene Lyons, a Clinton backer and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist. “I suspect Susan McDougal is just the kind of woman that would irritate the hell out of her.”

While Wright has tried to stay out of the limelight, it hasn’t been easy. In January, after the first frenzy over Monica Lewinsky, whose name surfaced in the Jones case, Wright appeared deeply shaken after her own car was mobbed by reporters and cameramen. Wright rarely gives interviews—she would not talk to PEOPLE—and has a well-known distaste for being photographed. Her closest confidant is her husband. Indeed, some attorneys in the Jones case were startled when they arrived for a closed meeting with the judge last year only to discover that Robert would be present as well. He told The Washington Post that he had prepared a memorandum for his wife before one of her rulings in the Jones case but insisted that his efforts amounted to nothing more than what a law clerk would do.

All Washington is still waiting to see what effect Wright’s April 1 ruling will have on the wide-ranging investigation of Clinton being conducted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. In strict legal terms, the dismissal of the Jones case has no bearing. Starr could still try to prove that Clinton lied under oath when he denied to Jones’s lawyers that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. But from a political standpoint, getting Congress to act on such findings now that Jones’s suit has been thrown out seems unlikely. “His investigation is dead in the water unless he has something on the Whitewater matter,” says Larry Klayman, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group in Washington.

Such political repercussions are probably of little concern to Wright. “She’s just there to do her job, try the cases and go home. That’s it,” says David H. Williams, a friend and lawyer in Little Rock. “I don’t think she has any desire whatsoever to be in the newspapers or on television.” Given the importance of her ruling to the Clinton Administration, though, she may well have a place in the history books.

Bill Hewitt

Joseph Harmes in Little Rock, Ellise Pierce in Texarkana and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington

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