“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” is the Bible verse adorning the main building at the University of Texas and living in the hearts of millions. In those words are the most important concepts in law: truth. In a free society, truth is the basis of law, and law is the foundation of justice. Texas attorney Leon Jaworski was called upon to defend truth and law in the most challenging political periods America has faced, the Watergate Scandal.
Leonidas Jaworski was born in Waco in 1905. His parents were immigrants, and his father was a minister. Known to his friends as “Leon,” he proved a bright and hard-working student, often studying by candlelight. He graduated from Waco High School, where he excelled at debate, and enrolled at Baylor University.
In 1925, he completed his law degree and became the youngest lawyer in state history, not quite 20 years old. He later received a masters degree at George Washington University Law School.
He moved to Houston in 1930. His skills soon attracted the attention of some of the most powerful lawyers in the city. In 1931, Jaworski joined the growing firm of Rufus Fulbright, and within a few years, he became a partner in the firm, which became the largest and most influential firm in Houston.
During World War II, Jaworski served as a lawyer for the U.S. Army. At the end of the war, the Allies began putting Nazi officials on trial for crimes against humanity, Jaworski directed the prosecutions of war criminals. He ensured that those who slaughtered so many civilians and soldiers would face justice.
One case that he prosecuted personally stemmed from the 1944 Russelsheim Massacre, in which eleven German civilians murdered six American prisoners whose plane had been shot down nearby. Jaworski passionately argued that in spite of whatever orders the Nazis gave or however they incited the population, each individual was responsible for his own actions and must answer for those actions. Ten of the eleven defendants were convicted.
After the war, Jaworski returned to Houston. He served on numerous civic boards. In 1960, he was elected president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. In 1961 and 1962, he was president of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He then served as president of the Texas Bar Association for the 1962-1963 term. Starting in late 1963, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to several presidential commissions to study such issues as violent crime and investment law. In 1971, fellow lawyers honored Jaworski by electing him president of the American Bar Association.
In the meantime, President Richard Nixon had embroiled himself in a scandal during his 1972 re-election campaign. Nixon had ordered his employees to break into private offices to steal information or plant wiretaps and paid their silence with a secret slush fund of corporate donations. The most notorious break-in was the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. While Jaworski had become a respected member of the legal community, the Watergate scandal would make him a household name.
In May 1973, former Solicitor General Archibald Cox was named special prosecutor to investigate the case. Nixon grew increasingly paranoid as Cox moved closer to the evidence, zeroing in on conversations that Nixon had taped in the Oval Office. Nixon aides admitted these tapes existed, and Cox demanded they be submitted as evidence. Nixon refused. On October 20, 1973, Nixon fired Cox in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” where which Nixon also forced the resignations of the attorney general and the assistant attorney general in order to dismiss Cox.
Reluctantly, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, tapping Jaworski. Though Jaworski had been a Democrat, he had voted for Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Jaworski had not worked as a prosecutor in decades; he gave the appointment his full effort and left no legal stone unturned.
Jaworski quickly demanded that Nixon hand over the tapes. Nixon insisted that the tapes were privileged while Jaworski insisted that Nixon could not impede a criminal investigation. Jaworski took the case to the Supreme Court in July 1974, arguing that Nixon must cooperate. The Supreme Court agreed unanimously, and ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes. As it turned out, the tapes ultimately showed Nixon plotting to obstruct a criminal investigation and became his political downfall. He resigned in disgrace on August 9. In the end, Jaworski showed that everyone is subject to the law.
He wrote several books on his experiences. In 1961, he published “Fifteen Years After,” detailing his work with the war crimes trials. In 1976, he wrote “The Right and The Power,” reflecting on his Watergate experiences. His work ensured that honor and justice would remain at the heart of American law. Jaworski died at his ranch just outside Austin in December 1982.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.