An Original Model of the Independent Counsel Statute

On Friday, October 19, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon took a risky step to de-fang the Watergate investigation that had become a “viper in the bosom” of his Presidency. The U.S. Court of Appeals had just directed him to tum over tape-recordings subpoenaed by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox; these taperecordings might prove or disprove White House involvement in the Watergate cover-up. Rather than challenge this ruling, the President conceived a new plan. The White House would prepare summaries of the nine tape-recordings in question, which would be verified by Senator John Stennis, a seventy-two-year-old Democrat from Mississippi, working alone with the assistance of a single White House lawyer. Cox would be entitled to the verified transcripts, but nothing else. It was a generous offer, in the President’s mind; there would be no further negotiations. The following day, October 20th, Cox held a dramatic press conference, spelling out for the American public why he could not agree to the Stennis proposal. President Nixon turned off his television set and summoned Attorney General Elliot Richardson to the Oval Office: Cox had to be fired – immediately. Richardson refused the Presidential directive and resigned. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus attempted to resign and was “fired” by the President. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the President’s order, terminating Cox. “In the shock of that moment,” one commentator later recounted, “the American public got a taste of what it would be like to live in a country where their ruler is above the law.” A firestorm of public protest erupted that led to the appointment of a new special prosecutor – Leon Jaworski – and the slow unraveling of the Nixon presidency.