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St. Clair, James

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Significance: St. Clair, a skillful trial lawyer, unsuccessfully argued before the Supreme Court that executive privilege allowed President Richard M. Nixon to refuse to submit tapes of Oval Office conversations to investigators.


St. Clair received his law degree from Harvard University Law School in 1947. By 1974 he was a senior partner in the prestigious Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr. He had become famous for his skill as a trial lawyer. St. Clair is best known for his defense of President Richard M. Nixon. In 1972 the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., was burglarized. The question arose of whether the Nixon administration and possibly the president himself was involved in a cover-up and had participated in or knew about the burglary. On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield told the Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin that Nixon had recorded all conversations that took place in the Oval Office. Many suspected that these tapes would reveal the extent of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate affair. Nixon cited executive privilege and refused to obey an order to submit these tapes to Judge John Sirica. This provoked a constitutional crisis, and Nixon hired St. Clair as his special counsel to defend him in front of the Supreme Court. In July, 1974, St. Clair asked the Supreme Court to vacate Judge Sirica's order, citing executive privilege, but by a unanimous vote the Court ordered President Nixon to turn over the requested tapes to Judge Sirica. It was only after this Court decision that St. Clair learned that Nixon had lied to him. St. Clair had been assured that no incriminating facts were included in these tapes. St. Clair also defended Nixon in the impeachment inquiry. After Nixon's resignation, St. Clair returned to his Boston law firm.