As with Watergate, lawyers played a key role in Jan. 6 debacle

July 12, 2022 6:00 am

People who should know the law best ignored it as several turns. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

One of the most striking and disturbing parallels between the January 6th insurrection currently being investigated by the U.S. House of Representatives and Watergate, which recently commemorated its 50th anniversary, is the pivotal role of lawyers in those two monumental  offenses.

Although not all of the key malefactors during the Watergate affair were attorneys, most of the major ones were, ranging at the low end from dirty trickster Donald Segretti to the “Big Enchilada” Attorney General John Mitchell, to the even bigger one, the ringleader, President Richard Nixon. 

Other lawyers who played crucial roles included a rogue’s gallery, including break-in mastermind Gordon Liddy and high-level White House aides John  Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, “plumbers” leak investigator Egil Krogh, and, of course, John Dean, who ultimately burst the bubble, among others.

Most of them lost their law licenses  and a few lost their liberty for a while. A few regained their law licenses later and resume some forms of legal practice, including Segretti.

(Disclosure: A couple of decades after Watergate, I ended up as co-counsel with him representing clients in a California-based civil lawsuit.)

The depredations of lawyers in Watergate led to a number of changes in protocols governing their professions nationally and here in Minnesota. They included new rules aimed at curbing improper behavior by attorneys, such as restrictions on some overzealous behavior on behalf of clients; tougher laws when it comes to criminal actions in concert with clients; and the requirement to alert the authorities to known fellow attorney miscreants, among other heightened ethical standards.

It was believed, or at least desired, that strengthening these strictures and enforcement of them would deter lawyers from participating in these prohibited behaviors, including those counseling high-level elected officials.

Wrong. Attorneys — or at least some of them in and around the White House — seemed to have learned nothing from the Watergate fiasco and the ensuing restrictions on their misbehavior that emanated from it.

The January 6th insurrection and the path leading to it was strewn with lawyers. Indeed, the underlying  “Big Lie” was nurtured by lawyers like Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell and cohorts advancing some 60 bogus lawsuits, which then morphed into the contrived and cockamamie plan promulgated by John Eastman to bar the counting of the electoral votes on that fateful day and relate them with phony fake electors or re-run the election by proxy through compliant state legislatures. Then there’s Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark, who took the Fifth Amendment more than 100 times in testimony before the Jan .6 committee. 

Some of those lawyers, like the Watergate crew, have had restrictions placed on their legal careers and been subject to monetary sanctions, although none has faced criminal prosecutions, yet.

But, as that sage Yogi Berra observed: “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.”

Another old saying is pertinent, too: That those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes, a  truism emerging from January 6th. 

Hopefully,the revelations of the perfidy of lawyers in that matter will not be repeated, and the next time an assault on the law or the democratic process is contemplated in the White House or other high places, lawyers will not be instigators, enablers, or participants in it and, going further, will suppress it from the outset.

If that occurs, the third time could be the charm.

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Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.