St. Clair, James Draper

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St. Clair, James Draper

James Draper St. Clair was a distinguished attorney who attained national prominence in 1974 as special counsel to President richard m. nixon during the Watergate scandal. As special counsel, St. Clair defended Nixon before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee during its Impeachment hearings against the president and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Nixon did not have to turn over his secretly recorded White House tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor.

St. Clair was born on April 14, 1920, in Akron, Ohio. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1941 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Following the war, St. Clair attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1947. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar that year and began work at Hale and Dorr, the most prominent law firm in Boston. St. Clair remained with the firm during his entire legal career.

A skilled litigator, St. Clair assisted joseph n. welch, a senior attorney with Hale and Dorr, at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. These hearings marked a turning point in Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's four-year quest to expose supposed Communist subversion in the federal government. Welch, representing the U.S. Army, skillfully rebuffed McCarthy's charges during the televised hearings.

St. Clair returned to Washington, D.C., and political controversy in 1974, when Congress and a special criminal prosecutor moved aggressively to obtain information on Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal. By early 1973, the botched 1972 Burglary of the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate building complex in Washington had been linked to members of Nixon's campaign and White House staff. The revelation in the summer of 1973 that Nixon had secretly recorded all conversations in the Oval Office led to demands by special prosecutor Archibald Cox that Nixon surrender the tapes. Nixon refused, firing Cox. Cox's replacement, Leon Jaworski, renewed the demand.

Nixon then hired St. Clair to argue against disclosure of the tapes and to prevent the House of Representatives from voting impeachment charges against the president. In the Judiciary Committee proceedings, St. Clair was permitted to hear the evidence, question witnesses, and present a defense. He argued that Nixon could be impeached only on hard proof that the president had committed serious criminal acts. Most committee members believed that a president might also be impeached for wrongdoing that was not strictly criminal. In July 1974, the committee approved impeachment resolutions that charged Nixon with assisting in the Watergate cover-up, abusing his powers, and failing to honor committee subpoenas for the White House tapes.

"[The Supreme Court] has the obligation to determine the law [regarding executive privilege]. The President also has an obligation to carry out his constitutional duties."
—James Draper St. Clair

As to the question of producing evidence, St. Clair argued that the doctrine of executive Privilege gave Nixon the right to withhold the tapes. In united states v. nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), the Supreme Court ruled that the Executive Branch was entitled to a presumptive, qualified privilege against disclosure of presidential communications, but that the privilege was overcome by the prosecutor's need for disclosure of those communications.

Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, St. Clair learned that one of the 64 tapes in question included a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. (Harry Robbins) Haldeman, in which Nixon sought to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation from investigating the Watergate burglary. The conversation, which took place a few days after the 1972 burglary, was the so-called smoking gun that proved Nixon had obstructed justice. St. Clair insisted that Nixon publish the tape. After its disclosure, Nixon's political support vanished. He resigned on August 9, 1974, rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office.

Following the Nixon debacle, St. Clair returned to Boston, where he continued to practice law at Hale and Dorr for another decade before retiring. He also was a lecturer at Harvard Law School and remained active in many civic and philanthropic organizations. In the early 1990s, St. Clair was again at the center of controversy when he was asked by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn to investigate Boston Police Department practices.

St. Clair died at the age of 80 in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 10, 2001. After his death, the Boston Bar Foundation renamed their Federal Court Public Education Project the James D. St. Clair Court Education Project. The purpose of the program is to educate the general population, especially young people, about the workings of the justice system in the United States.

Further readings

The James D. St. Clair Court Education Project. Available online at <www.discoveringjustice.org> (accessed July 25, 2003).