It’s in Your Court: rule of law, not rule of men

by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court

With all of the media focus on the government shutdown, the 40th anniversary of a heroic moment in American history passed recently with little recognition. Anyone under the age of 55 probably has no recollection or understanding of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” but that makes it even more worthy of recognition. It has often been said that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

The Watergate break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 and the White House’s attempted cover-up lead to the appointment of Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor to investigate and convene a grand jury. Cox demanded that the White House produce audiotapes of President Nixon’s oval office conversations, but Nixon refused.  Federal Judge John Sirica ordered that Nixon produce the tapes, which disclosed the President’s intimate involvement in the cover-up. The wheels of justice were in motion.

The President plotted to throw a wrench in the wheels of justice. On Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Cox. In a heroic response, Richardson refused and promptly resigned. Then Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelhaus to fire Cox.  In an equally heroic response, he refused and resigned. So Nixon ordered Robert Bork to fire Cox, which he did with the support of his two predecessors to avoid further crisis. This was the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Eventually the Watergate conspirators and many within the Nixon White House were brought to justice and went to prison. The President resigned to avoid impeachment and avoided prison only because of a pardon from President Ford. These events are a vivid history lesson that no person, not even the president, is above the law and beyond the grasp of the rule of law.  We live in a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the federal government.  We must never forget that our freedoms depend on the rule of law and not the rule of men and women, however, powerful.

Of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Archibald Cox said:  “The most important thing was that the rule of law should prevail; the president must comply with the law. Ultimately, all [the people’s] liberties were at stake.”

President Clinton said of Elliot Richardson:  “[He] put the nation’s interests first even when the personal cost was very high.”

Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelhaus are heroes of the Watergate era whose contributions to liberty, when under siege, should not be forgotten.

Judge Halsey is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Videos may be viewed at www.QCTV.org.

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