April 01, 2012

The Legacy of Watergate

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, one of the scandal's best-known figures coauthors an examination of its importance for legal ethics.

John W. Dean, James Robenalt

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The Watergate break-in marked its 40th anniversary on June 17, 2012. One by one, most of the major post-Watergate reforms have fallen by the wayside. The centerpiece—the special prosecutor law—had been sufficiently gored both major political parties that it was allowed to expire under its sunset provisions. Campaign finance regulation, especially for corporations, has been upended by Citizen’s United. The Presidential Papers Act has been eroded over time. Even hard-hitting investigative journalism has succumbed to the economies of diminishing budgets at newspapers and major networks, and the rise of online, unedited news.

One Watergate reform endures and, in fact, has been strengthened: The legal profession’s emphasis on ethics has grown and expanded since Watergate. Initially, the ABA required law schools to teach ethics in order to be accredited. Then states started mandating special ethics portions to the bar examination. Continuing legal education requirements almost always carry an ethics and professionalism part. The Kutak Commission’s reforms, especially with respect to the representation of an organization as a client, now have been enacted in most states.

This is a lasting legacy from Watergate. In this sense, Watergate is not just a subject of history. Rather, it is the scandal that helped bring about stronger ethical standards and rules for the profession and for our society.

 

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