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Jack Miller, 'the perfect lawyer'

Matt Schudel

In 1961, Herbert J. "Jack" Miller Jr. received a call from Robert F. Kennedy, the new attorney general, asking if he would accept the job of running the Justice Department's criminal division. Miller, a Republican, could only blurt out, "Who, me?"

Miller, who died Nov. 14 at age 85, carried out Bobby Kennedy's war on organized crime, leading the Justice Department's crusade against mob families and corrupt labor unions. He secured an indictment and ultimately a conviction against Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa and helped write laws regulating the interstate activities of organized crime.

In 1965, Miller formed his own law firm and ultimately became one of the most prominent lawyers in town. Washingtonian magazine called him, in a flattering profile, "the perfect lawyer." Miller may not have been as well known as his friend and courtroom rival Edward Bennett Williams, but he was just as influential in Washington's legal world.

In his obituary, published Nov. 19, I have tried to sketch the intricacies of his most significant case: securing the pardon of Richard M. Nixon.

Miller became Nixon's lawyer soon after Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. After several sessions of top-level dealmaking with the new president, Gerald Ford, and special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, Miller hammered out the arrangement by which Nixon received his full pardon. In return, signed an affidavit admitting a level of responsibility for the Watergate scandal, although it was not a legal confession of guilt.

Miller then defended Nixon's interests in court for more than 20 years, primarily to keep the White House tapes and other documents under wraps. Through clever legal maneuvering, Miller maintained that the tapes were Nixon's private property and should not be made public -- or that, in any case, Nixon should receive some kind of compensation. He reached an agreement with the National Archives that, in essence, gave the archives and Nixon dual possession of the tapes. Neither party could get access to the tapes without the consent of the other.

Miller was a consummate courtroom master and one of the finest trial lawyers this city has known. But he was also a backroom fixer who knew how to work out compromises that saved his clients trouble and money. Nixon actually wanted to go to trial to defend his actions in Watergate until Miller persuaded him otherwise. Miller was the lawyer Sen. Edward M. Kennedy turned to after Mary Jo Kopechne died in his car at Chappaquiddick in 1969. (In a weird coincidence, Kopechne had briefly worked in Miller's law office.) Former Reagan White House adviser Michael Deaver hired Miller to defend him against perjury charges in the 1980s; Miller used Deaver's alcoholism as a defense but, for one of the few times in his career, lost the case in a rout.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Miller flew to Dallas and told the local Dallas prosecutor to stop speaking so openly to the press about the assassination. He believed that the prosecutor's penchant for publicity allowed the chaotic, unsecured scene in which Jack Ruby could walk up to alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and shoot him at point-blank range. He dissuaded the Texas attorney general from launching his own investigation of the assassination, which he believe would devolve into a legal circus.

Aside from his high-profile work on the national stage, Miller was active in Maryland and D.C. affairs for many years. He even ran for lieutenant governor of Maryland once, losing in 1970.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Miller chairman of a presidential commission to examine the roots of crime in the District of Columbia. Miller was quite proud of his blistering report, which found that the District had no agency to combat juvenile delinquency; no rehabilitation programs in prison; delays in juvenile court; shortfalls in fighting drug abuse; and a shortage of judges. When critics argued that the District simply didn't have enough courtrooms, Miller replied, "My answer is to hold court in tents the. When don't need fancy courtrooms."

Before a Senate hearing in 1969, he didn't mince words.

"There has been an abysmal failure to meet the crime problem in Washington," he testified. "We have gone too long without treating this problem as the emergency it is."

Some things, alas, never change.

By Matt Schudel  |  November 19, 2009; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

On what do you base your assertion that "Through clever legal maneuvering, Miller maintained that the tapes were Nixon's private property and should not be made public -- or that, in any case, Nixon should receive some kind of compensation. He reached an agreement with the National Archives that, in essence, gave the archives and Nixon dual possession of the tapes. Neither party could get access to the tapes without the consent of the other?"

There was no dual possession of the 3,700 hours of Nixon White House tapes. They were stored in the White House complex until 1977, when the Supreme Court upheld the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. At that time, the National Archives took possession of them. All sections of the original tapes and any duplicates of them which dealt with the President's constitutional, statutory and executive functions were and have remained the property of the federal government. The former President retained no proprietary rights to such material, although some purely personal information later was returned to him. There was no "dual possession," only one party physically possessed the material and had intellectual custody of it, as well--the federal government. Federal archivists had possession of all the information, and could access it at needed, under federal regulations, from the time they took custody of the materials.

But you're right that Mr. Miller's law firm led the fight to delay public release of much of the material on the tapes by contesting interpretations of what constituted "personal" and what did not.

Posted by: Former_Archivist | November 19, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

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