Consisting of judges from both the federal district court and the court of appeals of D.C. and justices from the United States Supreme Court, the Manuscript Division's judicial holdings are robust. Below are descriptions of the papers of ten judges and justices who presided over cases relating to Watergate including Judges John J. Sirica, J. Skelly Wright, and Gerhard Gesell as well as Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, and William O. Douglas.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun expressed his consternation about the “pall of Watergate” in an address in August 1973 to the American Bar Association. Blackmun remarked that the “very glue of our ship of state seems about to become unstuck.” He worried about the “consequent grave damage to the democratic process . . . .”1 Less than a year later Blackmun and the other justices of the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for United States v. Nixon. This landmark case limited the executive privilege of a president and ruled that Richard M. Nixon had to turn over his White House tape recordings and documents to the federal district court.
Four subseries in the Supreme Court File of the Blackmun Papers contain material pertaining to Watergate. They are: Case File, Briefs, Dockets, and Subject File. The case file for United States v. Nixon (boxes 190-191) chronicles the efforts of the justices to rewrite Chief Justice Warren Burger’s early drafts, which they viewed as inaccurate and unclear. As a junior justice, Blackmun’s contribution was a revision of the facts for the case. At the time Blackmun thought his changes upset Burger who probably viewed it as Blackmun siding with the other justices against him. In an interview years later, Blackmun commented, “. . . I’m sure that this case was a factor in the divergence from our former rather close relationship.”2
The Case File subseries includes additional cases relating to Nixon and the Watergate Affair. The October 1973 term includes an application relating to Nixon’s impeachment (A-1058 Impeach Nixon Committee v. Buck). There are three folders pertaining to Nixon v. Administrator of General Services (box 247). In this case the justices ruled that the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act was constitutional. It allowed government archivists to take control of Nixon’s White House tapes and papers for screening and to return any personal or private material. A case focusing on Nixon’s effort to prevent the release of his tapes to the public is Nixon v. Warner Communications (box 263). Docket sheets for all of the aforementioned cases are located in the Docket series, arranged chronologically by court term and therein alphabetically by type of case (appellate, in forma pauperis, and original) and therein by docket number.
The Briefs series of the Supreme Court File reflects Blackmun’s practice of keeping only the briefs of what he considered to be the more significant cases that came before the court. He kept briefs for United States v. Nixon (boxes 731-732) and Nixon v. Administrator of General Services (box 734). Blackmun also discussed the Watergate scandal in his oral history interviews located in the “Oral history project files” in the Subject File. The final transcript (box 1429) of the interviews includes an index. A digitized version of the oral histories is available as part of the Manuscript Division’s highlights of the Blackmun Papers.
Researchers also may wish to consult the Subject File series containing the judicial conference file of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (boxes 1461 and 1465). In remarks at these annual meetings, Blackmun would review the cases of the previous Supreme Court term. Also worthy of mention are autobiographical files (boxes 1548-1550) in the Writings File series. These files focus on all aspects of Blackmun's career and contain drafts, notes, and research material such as photocopies and originals of correspondence.
The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.
Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan sat on the bench through eight different presidential administrations and three chief justices: “[T]he most influential associate justice in Supreme Court history,” legal scholar Bernard Schwartz wrote in 1995.3 Even his ideological opponents acknowledged Brennan’s long juridical shadow. “There is no individual in this country, on or off the court, who has had more profound and sustained impact upon public policy for the past 27 years,” noted the National Review in 1984.4
During the summer of 1974, Watergate, particularly the issue of Richard M. Nixon’s secret White House tapes, which District Judge John J. Sirica had subpoenaed for court review, had drawn the public’s attention. Anticipating that the case would eventually reach the Supreme Court, White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler told journalists that the President would adhere to a “definitive” decision from the justices.
According to Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, nearly all the justices on the Burger Court had been following the Watergate scandal, but especially Chief Justice Warren Burger, one of four Nixon appointees sitting on the Court. At a pre-term briefing and cocktail party for new clerks, Burger pointed out the likelihood the tapes case would be heard by the Court: a case that “would pose extraordinary problems, and the foremost among them would be security.” Burger worried about “reporters … desperate for stories” using every trick as a means to garner a scoop.5
Burger’s hunch proved correct when the justices agreed to expedite their hearing of United States v. Nixon over the summer. Oral arguments were heard on July 9, 1974. At conference, “they quickly revealed their unanimity of judgment,” observes historian Stanley L. Kutler, but “deciding the scope of the opinion proved more difficult.”6 Indeed, between July 8 and July 24 when Burger published the Court’s unanimous 8-0 opinion (Justice William Rehnquist had recused himself), no small amount of negotiation, debate, and maneuvering unfolded. “Unsurprisingly – especially because this was the sole case then occupying the attention of the other justices and their clerks – Burger’s effort to craft an opinion that satisfied his colleagues did not go smoothly,” write Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse.7
Justice William Brennan played an active role in the somewhat volatile behind the scenes discussions between justices. Notably, Brennan forcefully advocated for a unanimous eight signature opinion. Moreover, Brennan worked with the other associate justices and, despite a pronounced wariness between the two, Burger, to shape the final opinion which though written by the chief justice, was a product of all eight jurists.
In the end, United States v. Nixon resulted in a defeat for Nixon, but a victory for both the office of the presidency and the Supreme Court. On the one hand, it rejected Nixon’s argument that the issue of the tapes was an internal disagreement in the Executive Branch that fell under the president’s discretion. The ruling also argued that Nixon could not withhold evidence relevant to a criminal trial. However, the decision, for the first time, acknowledged and confirmed “presumptive privilege for Presidential communications … fundamental to the operation of Government, and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.”8 Ultimately, the opinion “ratified a constitutional basis of claims of executive privilege, a privilege that Nixon’s successors have frequently invoked,” point out Graetz and Greenhouse. It also protected Nixon and his successors “from risk of civil damages for wrongful acts committed while in office.”9
In regard to the Court, United States v. Nixon reiterated its ability to determine “what the law is” including the delineation of the powers and privileges accorded to each branch of the federal government. While many legal scholars have criticized the decision, according to legal experts such as Graetz and Greenhouse, it proved politically astute: “Nixon was a criminal; by then everyone knew so, and his being forced to resign was well deserved.” It also spared the nation “the agony of the impeachment trial.”10
Due in part to his active role in crafting the decision, but also the robust nature of the collection, the William J. Brennan Papers offer great insight into the constitutional aspects of Watergate. Researchers will want to start in Part I with the Case File series which consists of applications, argument lists, assignment lists, certiorari memoranda, law clerks' memoranda re argued cases, conference lists, docket sheets with conference notes, memoranda, motions, notes, opinions in various stages of preparation, printed matter, and related background material. Files for the United States v. Nixon (73-1766) trial can be found in Box I: 332 and consist of 14 folders. Additionally, Brennan sometimes recorded conference meetings notes on the back of docket sheets, which are arranged in numerical order near the beginning of each October Term (OT) term. The docket sheet for United States v. Nixon is located in I: Box 312 under OT 1973.
In Part II, the Case File series are an additional eight folders providing further insight into the decision. In contrast to the Part I series of the same title, these files contain bench memoranda, correspondence, opinions in various stages of preparation, printed matter, legal briefs, and background material grouped into administrative and opinion files.
One of the unique aspects of the Brennan papers are the “Case Histories” located in Part II. These are end of term summaries written by Brennan’s clerks and sometimes by Brennan himself, and provide an inside account of events. These can be found in Part II Boxes 6-7. Another possible avenue for research is the Correspondence series Set I , which includes letters between Brennan and federal judges such as Charles Fahy, David Bazelon, Irving Kaufman, and J. Skelley Wright, politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and constitutional scholar Charles Alan Wright among others. Additionally, correspondence files in the Members of the Court and Clerks subseries provide further possibilities, though very often these letters do not discuss ongoing or even past cases heard by the court.
Finally, though more tangentially related to Watergate, during October term 1976, the Court heard the case Nixon v. General Services Administration in which Nixon challenged the recently passed Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act. The law “directed the Administrator to take custody of Nixon’s presidential materials, assign government archivists to screen materials for items that were personal or private in nature, preserve materials with historical value, and make materials available for use in judicial proceedings.” The former president challenged several aspects of the law and it reached the court in April 1977. Brennan wrote the majority 7-2 opinion rejecting Nixon’s appeal. Nine folders on the case can be found in Part I under the Case Files series. Additionally, the Part II Case History series features an extensive summary of the case from Brennan’s perspective worth consulting for those researchers interested in the issue.
The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.
“He was interested not in the clash of ideas, but in the clash of power,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote of former president Richard M. Nixon in 1974. “Telling lies was so customary a technique, so much a proverb of his life, that he was unaware when he did lie. His compulsion was never to admit an error or weakness.”11 A somewhat ironic passage from Douglas’ memoir, The Court Years, considering that the justice sometimes larded his own personal history with more than a dash of fiction. “You’ve told that story so often, you’re beginning to believe it,” Justice John Marshall Harlan once remarked to him.12
The Nixon administration attempted to have Douglas impeached in 1970 with Republican House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford denouncing him on the floor of the House as an unethical and subversive presence on the Court. Though unsuccessful and arguably politically costly for the Nixon administration, the impeachment attempt also further soured Douglas’s view of the president. According to one story, Nixon once confided in Douglas that a speech the justice had made at Duke University during Nixon's time in law school there inspired him to enter politics. Douglas described it as the "most upsetting moment of his life ... the only time he actually felt 'suicidal.'"13
Douglas remains best known for his defense of civil liberties notably an individual’s right to privacy from state interference. “Every ounce of his boundless energy was directed to the problem of personal rights,” remarked Thurgood Marshall when Douglas died in 1980.14 However, as historians and legal theorists have reflected on his legacy, some argue he lived these ideals more than he institutionalized them in law. “William O Douglas’ tenure on the Supreme Court has regularly been seen as a testament to his rugged individualism, as a symbolic journey of one who dared to be different,” G. Edward White wrote in 1988.15
Within four years of Nixon’s impeachment attempt, United States v. Nixon was heard by the Court as controversy engulfed the capital. The President had appealed District Judge John J. Sirica’s subpoena requiring that the administration hand over the secretly recorded White House tapes pertaining to Watergate. Revenge and personal difference aside, Nixon’s surveillance policies conflicted with Douglas’s expansive view of individual rights.
According to The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, when the vote came to determine whether or not to provide an expedited hearing of the case at the Supreme Court, Douglas voted immediately to hear the case arguing that “[e]veryone, including the President had to turn over evidence,” adding that “defendants in the cover up trial would be entitled to all possible evidence.”16
At oral arguments, Douglas reasserted his belief that the tapes needed to be relinquished. Nixon’s attorney James D. St. Clair was no stranger to Supreme Court hearings on presidential authority. In 1952, St. Clair represented President Harry S. Truman in the famous Steel Seizures case. During arguments in 1952, St. Clair suggested that though not above the law, the President occupied a place within it different from everyone else. St. Clair drew upon this argument once again in defense of the President asserting that while Nixon might well be impeached, he very well might not be indicted and thereby still retain presidential authority. Due to this unique position, even under impeachment, only the President could decide what documents or recordings went to the House for review. A court’s examination of this material violated the separation of powers because only the House held the power to impeach. If the Supreme Court forced Nixon to hand over the tapes to Judge Sirica, this verdict would prejudice members of the House. Douglas refuted this argument. Much as he did when voting to expedite the hearing, Douglas pointed out that the evidence should be available to all and might even help the defendants involved in various Watergate trials pending at the time. “The President’s counsel found himself arguing for naked official power as opposed to the rights of individuals,” writes historian Stanley Kutler.17
Douglas too participated in the negotiations that unfolded over the course of two weeks, though Chief Justice Warren Burger along with Justices Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, and Powell contributed more to the final written decision. (Justice William Rehnquist had recused himself from the case.) Still, Douglas pressed the Chief Justice whenever it appeared he was softening on the issue of presidential powers in moments chiding Burger for arguing that subpoenaing the president required a higher bar than what it might entail for the average citizen: “My difficulty is that when the President is discussing crimes to be committed and/or crimes already committed with and/or by him or by his orders, he stands no higher than the Mafia with respect to those confidences.”18
The William O. Douglas Papers provide several options for researchers interested in Watergate. The Supreme Court series in Part II consisting of administrative papers, briefs, certiorari memoranda, correspondence, docket books, notes, draft and final opinions, and printed material contains 15 folders (Box 1660) pertaining to United States v. Nixon (73-1766). Researchers might also consider the Correspondence series in Part II, starting with the Chronological subseries focusing on files dating between from 1972 to 1975 (Boxes 821-823) and then proceed to the General Correspondence subseries which features correspondents such as Judge David L. Bazelon and Justice Earl Warren, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Washington insiders such as Clark Clifford and Thomas Corcoran, and politicians like Emanuel Celler among others. The Subject File series in Part II also contains a folder on the Watergate Affair (Box 670).
The following collection title links to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. A link to the collection finding aid is included when available.
Gerhard Alden Gesell's obituary in the Washington Post described him as having an “aggressive, quick-draw judicial style.19 At one point, he threatened to hold Nixon in contempt of court for withholding evidence and accused him of delaying tactics that were ‘totally offensive to all our concepts of justice.’” As a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Gesell presided over many significant cases during his twenty-five year career including the Pentagon Papers case, the Iran Contra scandal, and the Watergate Affair. The Gerhard Alden Gesell Papers document the Watergate Affair in several series in the collection.
The most concentrated amount of material is located in the Case File series which is further arranged into two subseries: General and Special Case File. The Special Case File contains individual cases that relate to the scandal filed under “Watergate cases.” Cases featured are those pertaining to the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox (Nader v. Bork); the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex (United States v. Ehrlichman), the request for subpoenaed material by a Senate committee (Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon), and the trial of a White House aide accused of perjury to a grand jury (United States v. Chapin). The General subseries includes papers relating the application of broadcasters for access to the Watergate tapes in order to air them for public broadcast United States v. Mitchell. The General Correspondence also relates to two of the cases previously mentioned, United States v. Ehrlichman and United States v. Chapin. The correspondence consists chiefly of incoming letters from the public.
Although the Case File contains papers that are not included in the Chronological File, there is some overlap between the two series. The Chronological File contains information relating to individual cases that are scattered throughout the series rather than assembled in specific case files and provides a sense of the judge’s day-to-day work. For researchers looking for additional documents about the Watergate litigation, a search of the Chronological File may provide useful information.
The Bench Book series provides another valuable source about Watergate. Gesell’s handwritten notes about cases that came before his court are located in this series. The Bench Books are arranged chronologically, except for three volumes that are alphabetical by topic or case title.
Additional Watergate material is filed in the Dockets series. This series includes docket sheets pertaining to the Watergate cases. The sheets provide a record of the name and docket number of individual cases, and they include brief notes by the judge's staff recording many of the legal documents issued and filed. The Office File series also contains a folder “Watergate” dating 1990-1992.
An item worthy of mention is a notebook in the Writing series. The notebook contains Gesell's memoirs, "My Jealous Mistress," and background memoranda about significant cases and events during his career. The 2018 Addition series features another version of this memoir and also contains a few additional files about Gesell’s judicial career including a folder for United States v. Ehrlichman.
If researchers are interested in the sentencing process involving the Watergate defendants, they should consult the Sentencing File series. A presentence report was prepared by a probation officer to assist Judge Gesell in determining a defendant's sentence. It generally contains information on the offense, the defendant's prior criminal record, family history, marital status, education, employment, health, military service, and financial condition, and an evaluation and recommendation by the probation officer. Some access restrictions apply to the sentencing files. This issue, however, can be addressed by contacting the reference staff in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.
As a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Harold Leventhal presided over trials related to the Richard M. Nixon administration prior to Watergate. For example in 1971, he upheld Nixon’s decision to establish a wage price freeze program. In other cases, Leventhal critiqued the administration for its handling of the large anti-war protests that descended on the city during the era.
Several cases pertaining to the 1972 Watergate break-in came before Leventhal, both in his capacity as a jurist on the D.C. Circuit but also as a visiting judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As a result, these files document the court of appeals review of federal district judges’ rulings regarding the Watergate burglary.
Leventhal took part in a 5-2 majority decision (United States v. Nixon) which included Judges David L. Bazelon, J. Skelly Wright, Carl McGowan and Spottswood W. Robinson III. The unsigned opinion rejected Nixon’s claims of “absolute privilege” regarding the secret recordings held by the White House. “Though the President is elected by national ballot and is often said to represent all the people he does not embody the nation’s sovereignty,” the majority opinion noted. “Sovereignty remains at all times with the people, and they do not forfeit through elections the right to have the law construed against and applied to every citizen.”
A year later, Leventhal wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Liddy, a 5-1 ruling upholding G. Gordon Liddy’s conviction handed down by United States District Court judge, John J. Sirica. “Judge Sirica’s palpable search for the truth in such a trial was not only permissible, it was in the highest tradition of his office as a federal judge,” Leventhal wrote. In 1976, Leventhal took part in another unsigned majority opinion again upholding convictions of three Nixon officials – John Mitchell, John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. A separate opinion by Judge J. Skelly Wright, granted former assistant attorney general Robert Mardian a new trial due to the death of his attorney during the case. Finally, Leventhal co-wrote the majority opinion in a 1977 case in which the appellate court ruled that Nixon had to hand over tapes for pending civil suits. “There is a strong constitutional value in the need for disclosure in order to provide the kind of enforcement of a constitutional right that is presented by a civil action for damages, at least where, as here, the action is tantamount to a charge of conspiracy among high officers of government,” noted Leventhal and Judge Spottswood Robinson III.
Appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Leventhal served as a federal appellate judge for nearly 15 years. The Case File subseries of the collection, spanning the years from 1932 to 1979, is the largest in the Court of Appeals File and comprises almost half of the collection. These files include correspondence, memoranda largely between judges, court clerks, and lawyers, opinions (most of which are in draft form), orders, briefs, motions, reports, notes, and printed matter. In particular, the series contains a wealth of material under the grouping Watergate (Boxes 130-137) including the following cases: Mitchell v. Sirica, Nixon v. Sirica, Haldeman v. Sirica, United States v. Ehrlichman, United States v. McCord, Hunt v. United States, Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, United States v. Liddy, and In re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum to Nixon, among numerous others. The Watergate files are arranged alphabetically by topic or type of material; the cases are further arranged by case number. Researchers may also wish to consult the Notebooks and Notes series for the years 1972-1975 (Boxes 143-145). Finally, the Correspondence series features letters between Leventhal and fellow judges John J. Sirica, David L. Bazelon, George MacKinnon, and Carl McGowan.
Due to some complexities regarding the numbering and organization of cases, researchers are encouraged to consult the finding aid when navigating this portion of the collection. In addition, researchers will discover that many of the general case files are incomplete and might contain only a few items related to the issues at hand.
The Los Angeles Times obituary for Thurgood Marshall stated that “Though best known for his 24 years on the Supreme Court, many legal scholars consider him the most important lawyer of the 20th Century because of his role in ending institutional segregation in the United States.”20 Marshall was involved as a lawyer and Supreme Court justice with many historic cases during his career. The Watergate scandal added yet another to his tenure on the Court during the summer of 1974 with United States v. Nixon. In deciding this monumental case, the justices recognized that executive privilege did exist but felt it was not absolute. Chief Justice Warren Burger writing for the Court said: “We conclude that when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” They ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes to federal Judge John J. Sirica. Sixteen days later, Nixon resigned from the presidency.
The Case File subseries of the Supreme Court File of the Thurgood Marshall Papers contains six folders pertaining to United States v. Nixon (box 134). The folders are located in the opinions of the Case File subseries. The opinion files include correspondence, memoranda, and notes exchanged chiefly between Marshall, clerks, and other justices; draft opinions; final printed opinions; and related material.
Two other cases also relate to the Watergate Affair, and they are located in the Case File subseries. Nixon v. Administrator of General Services (boxes 197-188) concerns the legality of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act. This law allowed the National Archives and Records Administration to retain any Nixon presidential materials relating to the “Abuse of Governmental Power” and to process them and make them accessible to the public. The case of Nixon v. Warner Communications (box 205) relates to the public release of Nixon’s tapes.
Although the Marshall Papers do contain docket sheets for his Supreme Court tenure. The Library did not receive any dockets sheets for the terms in which the Watergate cases occurred.
“While Congress and the press traditionally have been the leaders in exposing government corruption, the courts played a more significant role in Watergate than had been the case historically,” historian Ruth P. Morgan wrote in 1996.21 Historians often point to District Court judge, John J. Sirica, who presided over the trial of the Watergate burglary defendants; however, several jurists played important roles in both adjudicating and documenting the historical controversy. United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Judge Carl McGowan serves as just one example. In a 1976 opinion on the issue of Richard M. Nixon’s presidential papers, written by McGowan, the Washington Post acknowledged that it and future cases represented “the latest most definitive of a series of judicial opinions growing out of the complex litigation over the Nixon materials.”22
Appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, McGowan succeeded Henry White Edgerton (whose papers also reside in the Manuscript Division). McGowan served as an appellate judge until 1981, briefly occupying the position of Chief Judge for four months between 1981 and 1982, until assuming senior status in 1982. The Carl McGowan Papers span the years 1921-1998 but concentrate primarily on his tenure on the court from 1962 to 1988. In fact, three quarters of the collection consists of files on cases containing notes on and drafts of opinions produced for a case, copies of briefs, and notes on the views of other judges participating in the case. Numerous files on procedural rules and the administrative conduct of the federal judiciary, especially the appeals court are also present in the Carl McGowan Papers.
As noted, President Richard M. Nixon figured prominently in McGowan’s jurisprudence. McGowan voted as part of a 5-2 majority ordering that the president surrender the White House tapes made after the Watergate break-in. Three years later, McGowan ruled to uphold a law enacted by Congress in 1974, the Presidential Records and Materials Preservation Act, which had nullified an agreement between Richard Nixon and the National Archives and Records Administration. The original agreement would have prohibited the release of many of the ex-president’s papers to the public based on several arguments from the former president which can be collapsed roughly into two categories: privacy rights and executive privilege. In the initial 1976 ruling for Nixon v. General Services Administration (later heard by the Supreme Court), McGowan wrote the unanimous opinion, which focused only on the law’s constitutionality. “The court finds … that Congress had ample reason to mandate survey by government archivists rather than control by Mr. Nixon who lacks expertise and disinterestedness.” In 1982, McGowan authored an opinion that threw out Nixon’s attempt to keep a large portion of the six thousand hours of White House tape recordings from the public, “a president’s expectation of privacy is undercut by public interest,” the Washington Post summarized. McGowan also participated in en banc rulings that denied an injunction against the Washington Post for its publication of the Pentagon Papers and upheld the convictions of several Watergate defendants.
Unfortunately, the finding aid for the Carl E. McGowan Papers can be a bit opaque in its organization. Researchers are encouraged to contact the reading room reference staff and/or the historical specialist responsible for overseeing the division’s legal collections for assistance. However, some suggestions can be made. The Joint Judges series, arranged in alphabetical order by first letter of a case, consists of case files which include correspondence, briefs, notes, opinions, dissents, concurrences, printed matter, and miscellaneous material. The General Later Files series, also arranged in alphabetical order by first letter of a case, contains case files which include correspondence, briefs, notes, opinions, dissents, concurrences, printed matter, and miscellaneous material. While the Speeches and Writings File series also might be of use, in regard to the former, they are listed according to the event at which they were given rather than by subject matter they engage. Finally, the Subject File might also contain material pertaining to Watergate; however, if present, it would be found under broader headings such as “Lawyer’s conscience and legal ethics, 1982” for example.
John Garrett Penn served as a judge for much of his career, first with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and later with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. It was in the latter capacity that Penn heard a peripheral case relating to Watergate. The case was Griffin v. United States, the lawsuit by Richard M. Nixon and later his estate to recover the value of White House records taken by the federal government after the Watergate Affair. Nixon sued in 1980, but the case did not go to trial before Judge Penn until the end of 1998. The case garnered scant attention until some of the well-known figures of the Watergate scandal testified such as John Dean and Alexander Butterfield. In 2000 the Justice Department agreed to compensate the estate for the White House tapes and papers for the sum of 18 million dollars.
Located in the series United States District Court File, Griffin v. United States (boxes 73-174) makes up nearly half of the collection. The Griffin case file contains depositions, exhibits, expert reports, expert testimony, trial transcripts, background material, and general case material, including correspondence and pleadings. Additional material relating to the case may be found in the bench books section and the orders, opinions, and other rulings section of the District Court File; both are arranged chronologically.
Although he was chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, most Americans had never heard of John J. Sirica in early 1973 when the first Watergate trial began in his courtroom. As the Watergate Affair unfolded, that quickly changed. Sirica presided over the cases involving the 1972 Watergate break-in and the subsequent presidential cover-up. At the age of 68 and moving closer to the end of his career, Sirica was “viewed as a lackluster jurist who had earned the nickname ‘Maximum John’ for the stiff sentences he gave to criminals.”23 But it was in the Watergate scandal that Sirica earned his national reputation. He did not believe that the whole story of Watergate came out at the original trial and conducted what he called a ‘search for truth’ in his courtroom.”24 By the end of the scandal, he had become a household name and was considered a hero by many.
The bulk of the Watergate material in the John J. Sirica Papers is located in two series, the United States District Court File and the Speeches and Writings File. The District Court File comprises almost seventy-five percent of the collection and is divided into five subseries: Personal Case Calendars, Correspondence, Case File, Bench Books, and Office File. The Case File subseries is the heart of the series and includes correspondence and memoranda, chiefly between Sirica and other judges, lawyers, the court clerk, and staff, as well as extensive legal material such as opinions, orders, motions, briefs, and transcripts. Papers in this subseries consist mainly of photocopies rather than original items and are organized by category into Watergate cases and other cases. The Watergate cases are further divided into three groups: cases, correspondence, and miscellaneous.
Bulking largest, the Watergate cases provide extensive documentation of the court proceedings relating to the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex (United States v. Liddy) and the cover-up of the burglary by high ranking government officials, including the president of the United States (United States v. Mitchell). In addition, there are related cases involving the subpoena of documents and tapes from President Richard M. Nixon and the transfer of grand jury reports to the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee (In re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum to Nixon and In re Report and Recommendation of June 5, 1972 Grand Jury Concerning Transmission of Evidence to the House of Representatives).
Sirica was frustrated throughout much of the break-in trial and believed that the burglars were not telling everything that they knew. He sometimes questioned witnesses trying to prod them into revealing the facts. Part of his frustration is captured in this excerpt from the United States v. Liddy transcript. In addressing the Cuban defendants who were members of the burglary team, Sirica stated: “I want you to be straightforward with these questions. I want you to come forward in a truthful manner, I don't care who they might hurt or help, it doesn't make any difference to this Court who you might mention or who it hurts or helps, just so you don't involve any innocent people.”25 Sirica's persistence finally paid off. In March 1973 one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., a former Central Intelligence Agency official and security chief for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), attempted to visit the judge's chambers. Unable to see Sirica, McCord left him a letter that began the unraveling of the scandal. Over the next two years Sirica's pursuit of the facts, along with the work of a federal grand jury and a Senate investigating committee, led to the implication of high-ranking government officials in the cover-up and ultimately to the resignation of the president of the United States.
In his evaluation of Sirica's role in Watergate, legal historian Jeffrey Brandon Morris conceded that the constitutional issues at play might have been very important, but they "were not an enormously hard study," nor "did Sirica have to decide major constitutional issues under the extreme pressure of time..." Perhaps as some observes have argued, Sirica's questioning during the McCord-Liddy trial "unnecessarily disrupted" its flow and his "tentative" sentences might have leaned toward the "draconian." Still, argues Morris, when presiding over the trials in his courtroom, Sirica "was dignified, non-partisan, and, almost always, strong." He found ways to work effectively with the Special Prosecutors and grand juries and gave neither the president nor any of the "cover up defendants" any "legitimate cause for complaint." Fellow District Court judge Gerhard Gesell concurred adding that Sirica "handled the press like a pro," and that one of the judge's strengths lay in his ability to "ignore advice as readily as he would accept it and always did what he thought best."26 "He was not the wisest, the most astute, the quickest witted, the most balanced of trial judges," writes Morris. "Yet to him came the greatest test ever demanded of an American trial judge. That test he met with courage, humility, and wisdom." 27 What did this mean for the larger District Court? According to Morris, it "came of age as a visible and influential national court," briefly eclipsing the Court of Appeals. "More than any other American court, the District Court demonstrated that the judiciary would not flinch from making the separation of powers work."28
The correspondence and miscellaneous files comprise the remaining material in the Watergate case files. During the Watergate trials Sirica received many letters, favorable and unfavorable, from the public and law professionals about the scandal. Due to the large amount of public correspondence, a systematic sample was taken of the letters by Library staff; fifteen percent of that correspondence was retained. The miscellaneous files consist mainly of press and sentencing files relating to Watergate.
The Speeches and Writings series also contains material relating to Watergate. This series includes correspondence, memoranda, speeches, book drafts, articles, notes, and financial and legal papers relating chiefly to Sirica’s post-Watergate speeches and writings. The majority of the items pertain to his best-selling book To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon.
The Sirica Correspondence series may also be of interest to those wishing to delve deeper into the Sirica Papers for mentions of Watergate. It includes incoming and outgoing letters relating mostly to Sirica’s personal interests and activities. Finally, though currently unprocessed, researchers may request Sirica’s diary from the Watergate period recently acquired by the Manuscript Division. It contains insights regarding various legal, political, and social aspects of the era with many pertaining directly to cases over which Sirica presided. Interested researchers should inquire about the diary with the Manuscript Reading Room staff.
As more than one legal observer noted, J. Skelly Wright might have been one of the most hated figures in twentieth century New Orleans history. Due in large part to several opinions issued by Wright dating from 1950 to 1962, in which he effectively desegregated much of public life in the Crescent City, his critics derided him as “Saint Skelly” or “Judas Scalawag.” In retrospect, however, others, such as his former law clerk and later Dean of the University of Chicago Law School Geoffrey Stone argued Wright’s jurisprudence was the expression of America’s most treasured ideals. “A central component of Judge Wright's understanding of legal doctrine was his insistence that justice should drive the scope and operation of legal technicalities-and not the reverse,” Stone writes. “Judge Wright thought of the law not as a body of infinitely manipulable logical abstractions, but as the living embodiment of our society's highest aspiration.”29 Through his rulings as a judge first on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, 1949-1962, and later on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 1962-1987, Wright successfully expanded civil rights, the rights of the accused and civil liberties. In addition, his rulings in administrative, maritime, and civil law established lasting precedents.
Wright participated in or presided over several cases connected to Watergate. In United States v. Nixon (1973), he participated in the 5-2 unsigned majority opinion that upheld Judge John J. Sirica’s decision to subpoena white house recordings pertaining to Watergate. The Nixon administration appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which upheld much of the lower court’s decision. Wright also participated in a 5-1 majority upholding Judge Sirica’s sentencing of Nixon officials John Mitchell, John D. Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman. In addition, Wright drafted a separate opinion, in which he granted Nixon’s former assistant attorney general Robert Mardian a new trial.
Issues raised by Watergate persisted in the courts well after Nixon’s resignation. "Two kinds of cases related to the Watergate Scandals would occupy the Circuit for years: the battle over control of Richard Nixon's papers and tape recordings of White House conversations, and civil suits against Nixon and members of his administration for alleged violations of constitutional or statutory rights," notes legal historian Jeffrey Brandon Morris.30 Though these cases affected the District Court more so than the Court of Appeals, the latter continued to hear cases related to the Nixon administration well after Watergate. Questions regarding disclosure and privacy pertaining to the president’s papers and recordings were raised in several cases. In 1977, Wright wrote the majority opinion in Halperin v. Kissinger representing the broadest rejection of the Nixon administration’s claims of privilege regarding legal protections from civil suits derived from actions taken by the president and other officials while in office. “Whatever special powers of the executive may hold in national security situations must be limited to instances of immediate and grave peril to the nation,” Wright noted in his opinion adding, “The president is the elected chief executive of the government not an omniscient leader cloaked in mystical power.” The Supreme Court deadlocked on the appeal 4-4 with Justice Rehnquist recusing himself.
The J. Skelly Wright Papers contain materials pertaining to the aforementioned cases and others related to Watergate. The Case File subseries within the United States Court of Appeals series consists of correspondence, memoranda, briefs, opinions, notes, case sheets, clippings, and printed matter and includes Haldeman v. Sirica, Nixon v. Sirica, Senate Select Committee v. Nixon (listed as Senate Select Comm. v. Nixon), United States v. Hunt, United States v. Liddy, United States v. Haldeman, United States v. Mardian, and Halperin v. Kissinger among others. Researchers may also wish to consult the Speeches and Writings series, Appearing primarily before law classes and legal conferences, Wright's speech files consist chiefly of typescripts and background information, although many of his speeches contain handwritten notations.