U.S. District Court Judge John Joseph Sirica (1904-1992) came to national prominence when he presided over the Watergate affair trials and confronted President Richard Nixon's claim of executive privilege used to protect private presidential tapes.
John Joseph Sirica was born on March 19, 1904, in Waterbury, Connecticut. He was one of the two sons born to Ferdinand ("Fred") and Rose (Zinno) Sirica. His father was an Italian immigrant; his mother was born in New Haven. Sirica's early childhood was spent moving around the South, as his father sought a warm climate for health reasons and employment. Limited finances forced Sirica to work as a boy to help support his family.
Sirica's family settled in Washington, D.C., when he was around 14 years old. He enrolled in the George Washington Law School at the age of 17, never having attended college. Finding his studies too difficult, he left school after one month. Sirica learned to box at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and supported himself by working as a physical education and boxing instructor for the Knights of Columbus and fighting in occasional boxing matches. Determined to embark on a professional career, Sirica returned to the study of law and earned an LL.B. degree in 1926 from Georgetown University Law School. Later in his distinguished career he was to be awarded ten honorary degrees. He was admitted to the District of Columbia bar shortly after graduation.
Sirica's long legal career began with private practice in 1927. He was appointed an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia on August 1, 1930, and resigned that post to return to private practice on January 15, 1934. While building his career as a trial lawyer, he became active in Republican Party politics. He worked in five presidential campaigns, beginning in 1936.
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Sirica to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He was sworn in on April 2, 1957. Sirica presided over a wide range of complicated and controversial civil and criminal cases and earned a reputation as a tough, law and order, and hardworking judge of high integrity. He was nicknamed "Maximum John" to reflect his inclination to give the longest sentences permitted by the laws.
Sirica became chief judge of the U.S. District Court through seniority on April 2, 1971. The new post gave him administrative responsibilities, including the right to assign special cases to particular judges and to oversee the work of the federal grand juries. In this capacity he assigned to himself the task of presiding over the Watergate cases.
The Watergate affair began on June 17, 1972, with a break-in and electronic wiretapping attempt at the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in a Washington, D.C., residential and office complex called the Watergate. Seven people were arrested. Investigation showed that there were ties between the burglars and President Richard Nixon's reelection committee.
The trials began on January 10, 1973. Sirica used his power to question witnesses to draw out more information, rather than sit passively watching the attorneys do all the questioning. He also carefully used his power of sentencing to stimulate the convicted men to assist investigators probing the range of illegal activities. These tactics contributed to the gradual uncovering of evidence in the complex political scandal.
The action of most historic value was Sirica's confrontation with President Nixon. This battle began on July 16, 1973, when Alexander Butterfield, a former White House staff member, disclosed that Nixon had been secretly taping conversations in the president's offices. Archibald Cox, appointed as special prosecutor to head the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, went to Sirica's court to seek a subpoena for eight tapes that contained specific White House conversations about the Watergate affair. Although a subpoena had rarely been served on a president, Sirica agreed to issue one. On July 26 the judge received a letter from Nixon in response. In the letter Nixon invoked the doctrine of executive privilege, claiming that the president was not subject to judicial orders to compel action by subpoena.
Sirica was concerned about stepping off into new legal territory and about the effects on Nixon if the tapes were disclosed. Yet, relying on very old precedent, he reached a decision about the next step in this confrontation. On August 29, 1973, he ordered the president to give him the tapes for his own private hearing. In this way Sirica tried to recognize the privilege to protect presidential privacy but also to uphold a principle that the courts could decide what was privileged. Sirica proposed to listen and select which parts of the tapes should be given to the grand jury. The White House appealed the decision. Sirica's opinion was upheld by the circuit Court of Appeals on October 12, 1973. On October 22, Sirica was told by the president's lawyer that the tapes would be submitted.
The confrontation over presidential privilege continued, however. On April 16, 1974, Leon Jaworski, who succeeded Cox as special prosecutor, asked Sirica to subpoena an additional 64 tapes. The judge, thinking the subpoena questions resolved, agreed. The White House refused to honor that subpoena. Jaworski made a dramatic decision, and on May 24 he asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a direct review and immediate consideration of the case, thereby bypassing the appeals process and saving time. The Supreme Court justices, in an unusual July session, upheld the order and issued their milestone ruling interpreting executive privilege on July 24. The public disclosure of the taped conversations was a factor in forcing Nixon to resign from office on August 9, 1974.
Sirica continued to preside over other Watergate trials and sentencing in the succeeding months. When he finally finished the last of that legal business, in the fall of 1977, he had devoted five years to the Watergate affair.
Sirica's treatment of the Watergate trials brought him national recognition. He was chosen "1973 Man of the Year" by Time Magazine. A grassroots effort was made to seek a presidential nomination for Sirica in 1976, but he declined to run for that office.
As required by federal law, Sirica stepped down as chief judge of the court on March 18, 1974, having reached his 70th birthday, but he remained a full-time member of the bench. He became senior judge of the court, entering a period of semi-retirement, on November 1, 1977. He chose full retirement October 1, 1986. Sirica lived with his wife, Lucile M. (Camalier), whom he married on February 26, 1952. They raised two daughters and one son. In 1992, at the age of 88, Sirica died of cardiac arrest in Washington, DC.
Further Reading on John Joseph Sirica
The judge's perspectives on his life and judicial motives are found in his autobiography, John J. Sirica, To Set the Record Straight (1979). This can be supplemented by reading "Standing Firm for the Primacy of Law," Time (January 7, 1974). Elaboration on the Watergate court cases and subpoenas can be found in James Doyle, Not Above the Law (1977) and in Leon Jaworski, The Right and the Power (1976). A nice final tribute to Sirica, John Sirica: A Man for His Season, was written by Larry Martz for Newsweek (August 24, 1992).