Sirica, John Joseph

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Sirica, John Joseph

(b. 19 March 1904 in Waterbury, Connecticut; d. 14 August 1992 in Washington, D.C.), lawyer and the leading judge in the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Sirica was one of two sons of Ferdinand (“Fred”) Sirica, an Italian immigrant from the village of San Valentino near Naples, and Rose Zinno, a homemaker and native of New Haven, Connecticut. Sirica had a peripatetic childhood as his father, a barber by trade, roamed the country seeking employment. He was educated in the public schools of Jacksonville, Florida; Dayton, Ohio; New Orleans, and Richmond, Virginia. The family finally settled in Washington, D.C., where Sirica received his high school diploma from Columbia Preparatory School in 1921. Skipping college, Sirica entered George Washington University Law School; he dropped out after about a month, however, when he found the courses too onerous. Sirica resumed one of his childhood occupations, selling newspapers. He also practiced boxing, which became a lifelong passion.

He then enrolled at Georgetown University Law School in 1923, supporting himself as a boxing instructor and fighting occasional matches. He earned his LL.B. in 1926 but for a time continued his pugilistic endeavors. Finally at the urging of his mother he gave up boxing, gained admission to the bar, and began his law career in private practice in the District of Columbia. He honed his legal skills defending the poor and watching the courtroom tactics of stellar lawyers.

On 1 August 1930 Sirica became an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a post he served in until 15 January 1934. During this time he developed his competence as a courtroom lawyer. He then returned to private practice, representing such famous clients as the newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. He also became active in Republican party politics as a hardworking presidential campaigner from 1936 through 1952.

During World War II, having failed the naval officer physical exam, Sirica traveled with his friend Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight champion, on war-bond tours throughout the country. He also had a brief stint as general counsel to the House Select Committee investigating the Federal Communications Commission. In 1949 he became a partner in the well-known Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson. On 26 February 1952 he married Lucille M. Camalier, daughter of a prominent Washington leather goods merchant. They had three children.

On 2 April 1957, owing to his long service to the Republican party, Sirica was sworn in as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He earned the sobriquet “Maximum John” because of the long sentences he handed out. On 2 April 1971 seniority elevated him to the position of chief judge of the District Court. It was in this capacity that he would come to preside over the trials attached to the complex political scandal that became known as Watergate.

Watergate began on 17 June 1972 when a team of burglars masterminded by White House officials invaded the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C.; the crisis ended on 9 August 1974 when Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign. Seven men were arrested and brought to trial before Judge Sirica in January 1973. Sirica’s threat of long sentences and his probing questions eventually led one of the defendants, James McCord, to cave in and implicate high government officials, announcing his change of heart in a March letter to the judge. Slowly but surely the cover-up came apart, and this unraveling led to a constitutional crisis.

On 16 July 1973 in testimony before the Senate Watergate committee, presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed President Nixon’s elaborate system for the secret taping of his office conversations. Archibald Cox, the special prosecuter assigned to the case, demanded to listen to the tapes that referred to Watergate. Nixon refused to release the tapes, claiming executive privilege. On 29 August 1973 Sirica ordered Nixon to turn the tapes over to him for a hearing to determine which portions should be submitted to a grand jury. Although the White House appealed, Sirica’s decision was upheld. A later request for additional tapes by Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The revelations contained on the tapes proved to be the Nixon administration’s undoing.

On 18 March 1974, the day before his seventieth birthday, Sirica stepped down from the chief judgeship as required by federal law. However, he continued to be a judge. In 1984 he halted a controversial gene-splicing experiment and his decision was upheld by the appeals court. (With the exception of the Watergate cases, this was not a common occurrence in his judicial career; his decisions were reversed on appeal more often than most judges.) On 1 October 1986 Sirica retired completely. This allowed him time to pursue more fully his avocations of walking, golf, and other sports. In 1992 he was hospitalized after he had fallen and broken his collarbone; shortly thereafter he died of cardiac arrest in Washington, D.C. He is interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Watergate lifted Sirica from obscurity to fame. In 1973 he was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” The controversy that surrounded him and his decisions during this period will continue as long as Watergate is considered and discussed. But if it had not been for his persistence and stubbornness, Watergate would barely rate a footnote in the histories of the time.

The John J. Sirica Audio Materials, 1974-1979, are located in the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. These consist of recordings of Watergate trial proceedings, speeches, radio and television interviews with Sirica and others, and news broadcasts pertaining to Watergate, as well as Sirica’s recorded autobiographical notes. The John J. Sirica Papers, 1932–1986, were transferred to this collection in 1993. Sirica’s book To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon (1979) includes an autobiographical prologue. See Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (1974), the classic text on Watergate, as well as David William Guard’s doctoral dissertation, “John Sirica and the Crisis of Watergate, 1972-1975” (Michigan State University, 1995). Michael Genovese, The Watergate Crisis (1999), is another excellent summary. An obituary is in the Naw York Times (15 Aug. 1992).

John Moran