Today in 1972: Arrest of five burglars marks the start of Watergate

June 17, 2011

Today in Legal History39 years ago today, five men were arrested, an event that lead to one of the greatest political scandals of the 20th century.

Those five men were arrested for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex.

This marked the beginning of the Watergate scandal, and the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

A series of investigations immediately after the arrests revealed connections the burglars had with Nixon’s reelection campaign organization, Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP).

First, one of the burglars was a Republican Party security aide.

More damning for CRP, though, was how much money in possession of the burglars – over $100,000 – was traced back to CRP.

This evidence spurred investigations higher and higher up the political hierarchy, until on April 30, 1973, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignation of two of his most influential aides, both of whom eventually went to prison.

A Senate Committee hearing on the matter was heard in the summer of 1973, during which revelations of the existence of audio recording devices throughout the White House were made.

The tapes from these devices were, of course, subpoenaed by both the Senate and Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor for the Watergate scandal.

Nixon refused, citing his executive privilege as President of the United States, and ordered Cox to drop his subpoena, which Cox refused.

Nixon eventually found someone willing to fire Cox, and the subpoena was dropped.

The Senate still wanted them, though, and the issue went to the Supreme Court, who ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void and that Nixon must turn over the tapes.

On July 30, 1974, President Nixon complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes.

By this point, the House of Representatives had already begun impeachment proceedings against Nixon.

These proceedings gained full momentum when a previously unknown tape was released on August 5, 1974, which recorded Nixon speaking about trying to cover up the Watergate break-in by having the CIA tell the FBI it was a national security issue.

Nixon-departThis directly contradicted Nixon’s previous publically-stated rationale for ordering the CIA instructions to the FBI, and this last tape was essentially the last nail in the coffin for Nixon’s presidency.

After Nixon was informed that his impeachment was all but certain, he decided to resign, which he announced in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on the evening of August 8, 1974.

The whole ordeal was a nation-changing ordeal, and is responsible for the suffix “-gate” being attached to hundreds of scandals coming thereafter.

More importantly to lawyers, the scandal is indirectly responsible for the ethical rules regulating lawyers today.

Because Nixon and several aides involved in the scandal were lawyers, there was a large public outcry for increased federal regulation of the law profession.

To counter this, the American Bar Association replaced its older Model Code of Professional Responsibility with the stricter Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983, and additionally required ABA-approved law schools to mandate students take a course in professional responsibility.

So while Watergate does indeed have massive implications for the nation as a whole, it has special meaning for lawyers, who have it to thank for all of the fond memories sitting in professional responsibility class.