Justice Dept. lawyer Herbert J. "Jack" Miller Jr. dies at 85

Mr. Miller pioneered the
Mr. Miller pioneered the "white-collar criminal defense," a colleague says, and he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor of Maryland. (1986 Washington Post File Photo By James K.w. Atherton)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Herbert J. "Jack" Miller Jr., who led the Justice Department's war on organized crime in the 1960s and later brokered the pardon of President Richard M. Nixon and prevented the release of Nixon's White House tapes after the Watergate scandal, died Nov. 14 at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville of renal failure after being treated for influenza. He was 85.

Mr. Miller had been one of Washington's top lawyers since the 1950s and was among the first to specialize in white-collar criminal defense. Early in his career, as chief of the Justice Department's criminal division under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1965, he directed the successful prosecutions of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa and members of organized crime families.

He once ran for lieutenant governor of Maryland as a Republican but was widely respected among both parties. His clients included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Nixon Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst and Reagan White House adviser Michael Deaver, in addition to NPR, ABC-TV and NASCAR.

While arguing high-profile cases that broke ground in constitutional law, he would occasionally handle cases in small-claims and traffic courts. (He once got his mother-in-law acquitted of speeding.)

"It really is amazing the range of things he did," said William H. Jeffress Jr., who had practiced with Mr. Miller since 1972. "He kind of pioneered the white-collar criminal defense, as we call it. He and Edward Bennett Williams really pioneered that practice in this town."

Role after Watergate

Mr. Miller began representing Nixon soon after the president resigned Aug. 9, 1974, and he continued to argue cases on his behalf for more than 20 years. Working closely with the White House and special Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, Mr. Miller was the key negotiator in arranging for Nixon's unconditional pardon by his successor, Gerald R. Ford. Nixon wanted to fight the pending corruption charges in court, but Mr. Miller convinced him that a legal battle over Watergate would not be in his or the country's best interests.

"Before President Ford would issue a pardon, he insisted that there would be an agreement that gave the U.S. control of Nixon's tapes," said Jeffress, who worked on the case with Mr. Miller.

The final arrangement sent Nixon's tapes to the National Archives, with the provision that neither Nixon nor officials at the archives could open the documents without the other's permission.

After a three-hour late-night meeting at Nixon's home in San Clemente, Calif., Mr. Miller got Nixon to sign a statement admitting he had made mistakes in dealing with Watergate. On Sept. 9, 1974, exactly one month after Nixon had resigned, Ford issued the pardon.

For years later, Mr. Miller found novel ways to fight efforts by Congress and courts to release Nixon's White House tapes. When Congress passed a law requiring Nixon to give up ownership of the tapes, Mr. Miller sued for compensation, arguing that the tapes were Nixon's private property.

To open the White House documents, Mr. Miller said, would be a "flagrant intrusion on Mr. Nixon's rights both as a citizen and as former president" and would precipitate a "freewheeling rummage" through his personal effects. In 1982, Mr. Miller won a precedent-setting 5 to 4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Nixon could not be sued in civil court for his actions as president.

Other court battles went on for years and were not entirely resolved until 2000, when the complete tapes were made public -- 26 years after Nixon had left office, and six years after he died.

Mr. Miller seldom spoke publicly about his role in the Nixon pardon, except to say that he admired Nixon and thought he was a brilliant man. Asked at a legal forum in Pittsburgh in 1999 whether Nixon had ever admitted outright guilt for the wrongs of Watergate, Mr. Miller replied, "If he ever said it to his attorney, the attorney would not be able to discuss it."

Justice Department roots

Herbert John Miller Jr. was born Jan. 11, 1924, in Minneapolis. After serving in the Army during World War II, he completed his undergraduate education at George Washington University and, in 1949, graduated from GWU's law school.

He began his career at the firm now called Kirkland & Ellis and, in the late 1950s, was assigned to a federal panel overseeing activities of the Teamsters Union. Mr. Miller was chosen by Robert Kennedy to lead the Justice Department's criminal division, with an emphasis on organized crime. He won a conviction in 1964 against Hoffa for jury tampering and led the successful prosecution of Bobby Baker, a Senate secretary and close Lyndon B. Johnson associate, for influence peddling.

In 1965, Mr. Miller founded the law firm of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, which became a training ground for top Justice Department officials, judges, trial lawyers and professors. Mr. Miller became a prominent supporter of Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential effort, which ended when he was assassinated in June that year. Mr. Miller was a pallbearer at Kennedy's funeral.

In 1970, Mr. Miller waged a losing campaign for lieutenant governor in Maryland in his only run for public office. But political leaders routinely sought his counsel, often without publicity.

"He had highly visible clients that no one will ever know consulted him," said Jamie Gorelick, who began her career in Mr. Miller's office and was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. "He probably knew more ways in and out of the White House than anyone, including the Secret Service."

Ideas 'crazy' and 'terrific'

Mr. Miller had a common touch that included hanging a Miller Lite sign in his office window. He adjusted the soft-drink vending machine in his office to dispense beer when a special button was pushed.

"We always joked that most of Miller's ideas were crazy, but the ones that weren't crazy were terrific -- and it was our job to figure out which was which," Gorelick said Wednesday in an e-mail.

He was an incorrigible punster and enjoyed asking people to grip his biceps, which were powerful from chopping wood. He also kept a collection of axes on his office wall. Once, when he was being kept from an appointment by a long-winded caller, Mr. Miller pulled down an ax and cut the telephone cord in half.

In 2001, Mr. Miller closed his law office and joined most of his partners at the firm of Baker, Botts. He lived on a 200-acre farm in Boyds, where he drove tractors, painted fences and fed hay to the thoroughbred horses his wife raised. He was a member of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Poolesville.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Carey Kinsolving Miller of Boyds; two sons, John K. Miller of Boyds and William G. "Bo" Miller of Nacogdoches, Tex.; and five grandchildren.

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