January 01, 2014

OPENING STATEMENT: Watergate Inspires after 40 Years

Courageous decisions made during the Watergate scandal still inspire lawyers today.

Don Bivens

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The audience sat rapt as Bill Ruckelshaus—former deputy attorney general of the United States—shared lessons for lawyers from Watergate, now 40 years past. Ruckelshaus resigned his number two position at the Justice Department rather than carry out President Nixon’s order to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Ruckelshaus’ first-hand description of events was riveting. He spoke at the Section’s recent Fall Leadership meeting, during a program I had the privilege of moderating. Ruckelshaus’s remarks should be required reading for every lawyer in America.

Ruckelshaus took us back to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20, 1973. President Nixon had refused to comply with a court order to turn over White House tape recordings to the special prosecutor. Archibald Cox intended to enforce the court order. Nixon dug in. As Ruckelshaus noted, “Cox was getting too close” to evidence that would ultimately topple Nixon’s presidency. Nixon directed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss Cox immediately as the special prosecutor. Richardson refused to comply, and he resigned as attorney general.

Nixon then ordered Ruckelshaus, as next in line at Justice, to dismiss Cox. Ruckelshaus likewise refused and resigned. Both lawyers recognized that they owed a higher duty to the rule of law than to the demands of their client the president. Ultimately, Solicitor General Robert Bork would be the one to fire Cox.

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