In directing the White House to produce the tapes, Sirica set himself on a constitutional collision course with Nixon, who tried to invoke executive privilege and argue that the tapes were not subject to judicial scrutiny. But in a historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sirica, ruling unanimously that the judiciary must have the last word in an orderly constitutional system.
Throughout his conduct of the Watergate trials, Sirica made it clear that he intended to get at the truth of what had happened, and said that in doing so, he did not intend to be bound by traditional ideas of courtroom procedures. He often questioned witnesses himself, and he instructed jurors that it was their duty to consider not just what had happened, but why. When he suspected that what was unfolding in his courtroom was less than the whole truth, he made his feelings known.
Critics contended that Sirica had overstepped his bounds. But his conduct was sanctioned enthusiastically by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in upholding the conspiracy, burglary, wiretapping and eavesdropping convictions of G. Gordon Liddy stemming from the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972.
“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,” U.S. appeals court Judge Harold Leventhal wrote.
“Simply stated, I had no intention of sitting on the bench like a nincompoop and watching the parade go by,” Sirica recalled in a book several years after the trial.
As the events of Watergate unfolded, Sirica’s original suspicions that there was more to the case than a simple burglary were more than amply borne out. In all, 19 officials of the Nixon administration and reelection campaign, including the president’s two closest aides and his attorney general, went to jail. The president, facing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
Sirica had become a household name in the country by the time the last of the appeals was exhausted in 1977.
Universities awarded him honorary degrees. Time magazine made him its Man of the Year for 1973. After it all ended, Sirica wrote a book about Watergate, “To Set the Record Straight.”
In his book, he expressed his outrage for the first time, saying that Nixon should have been indicted after leaving the presidency for his part in the Watergate coverup.