Sirica had appointed himself to preside over the original Watergate burglary trial when the burglary indictments were handed down on September 15, 1972, and had become something of a national hero for his relentless pursuit of the origins and responsibilities for the Watergate break-in. The Watergate burglars themselves -- Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, James McCord, and four Cuban Americans -- were convicted when that trial ended on January 23, 1973. Indeed, Sirica’s prosecutorial trial conduct and harsh sentencing of these burglary defendants was credited with bringing about the collapse of the Watergate cover-up, which had sought to limit responsibility for the Watergate break-in to low-level officials in the president’s reelection committee.
Proving that “the cover-up can be worse than the crime,” there was a renewed interest into just who had been responsible for the failed cover-up. After 10 months of intensive investigation, WSPF prosecutors contended that those indicted on March 1, 1974, along with some 17 unindicted co-conspirators, had worked together to protect higher-ups in the Nixon White House and the president’s reelection committee from being brought to justice in the first trial. Those higher-ups included Nixon’s three top aides -- Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman.
It was widely suspected that Sirica was eager to preside over the trial of the cover-up’s criminal conspiracy and the obstruction of justice that had come to light as a result of his own actions.
Sirica had become chief judge of the D.C. District Court in 1971. Under federal rules, the longest-tenured judge in each district automatically served as chief judge until he turned 70, when he was required to step down. Thus Sirica would cease to be chief judge on March 19, 1974.
As long as he was chief judge, however, Sirica’s duties included two specific responsibilities. First was general oversight of the grand juries operating under the auspices of the district court. These were ministerial and not substantive duties, and involved primarily housekeeping matters. Second was the authority to identify special cases and to assign specific judges to preside over them -- including himself -- rather than have the trial judge assigned by the usual and random system of rotation.
Our system of justice envisions proceedings before fair and impartial judges, who are expected to stay above the fray as they preside over the trials unfolding before them. Those defending Nixon felt Sirica had become anything but disinterested -- and was both biased in favor of WSPF prosecutors and had acquired a vested interest in securing the convictions of Nixon’s senior aides. Such convictions would not only vindicate his conduct in the earlier Watergate break-in trial, which had been criticized by many observers for its aggressiveness, but would further cement his national reputation as a vigilant, valiant, truth-seeking judge.
Sirica exercised his authority as chief judge to name himself to preside over the cover-up trial on March 1, 1974 -- the very day the cover-up indictments were announced, and less than three weeks before he would have to step down as chief judge.