John Joseph Sirica (March 19, 1904 – August 14, 1992) was the Chief Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where he became famous for his role in the trials stemming from the Watergate scandal. He rose to national prominence during the Watergate scandal when he ordered President Richard Nixon to turn over his recordings of White House conversations.
Sirica's involvement in the case began when he presided over the trial of the Watergate burglars. He did not believe the claim that they had acted alone, and through the use of provisional sentencing, strongly encouraged them to give information about higher-ups before final sentencing. One defendant, James W. McCord, Jr., wrote a letter, describing a broader scheme of involvement by people in the Nixon administration. For his role in uncovering the truth about Watergate, the judge was named TIME magazine's Man of the Year in 1973.
John Sirica was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Ferdinand (Fred), an immigrant from Italy, and Rose (Zinno) Sirica, whose parents were from Italy. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1918, where he attended Emerson Preparatory School and eventually transferred to Columbia Preparatory School. He went directly from high school to law school, which was possible in the District of Columbia at the time, and received his J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1926.
Between 1910 and 1918, the Sirica family lived in various US cities where Fred worked as a barber and tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at a number of small business operations. In 1922, Fred was running a two-lane bowling alley and poolhall which was raided by the police for violation of the Prohibition-era Volstead act when liquor was found in the restroom. Fred was initially arrested but the charges were dropped.  He soon sold the business and moved away.
Sirica fought as a boxer in Washington and Miami in the 1920s and 1930s. He was torn between a career as a fighter and the career in law that he followed after earning a law degree and passing the bar.
Sirica was in private practice of law in Washington, D.C. from 1926 to 1930. He was an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia from 1930 to 1934, and subsequently returned to private practice from 1934 to 1957. He also served as general counsel to the House Select Committee to Investigate the Federal Communications Commission in 1944; his appointment was opposed by the two Republican members of the committee. However, Sirica resigned in protest over the committees's handling of the WMCA scandal that year, and re-entered private practice. In 1947, he joined the law firm of Hogan and Hartson in Washington, D.C. (now called Hogan Lovells).
He was a Republican and was appointed to the Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on February 25, 1957, to a seat vacated by Henry A. Schweinhaut. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 26 and received commission on March 28.
John Sirica had a largely undistinguished career before Watergate. Author Joseph Goulden wrote a book about federal judges called The Benchwarmers and mentioned that many lawyers appearing in Sirica's courtroom thought little of him or his abilities as a judge. Many complained about his short temper and careless legal errors. He was nicknamed "Maximum John" for giving defendants the maximum sentence guidelines allowed. Boxing champion Jack Dempsey was a close friend of his and was Sirica's best man at his marriage in 1952.
Sirica served as chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia from 1971 to 1974, and assumed senior status on October 31, 1977. In 1979, Sirica published a memoir, co-authored with John Stacks, detailing his participation in the Watergate affair under the title To Set the Record Straight.
In the final years of his life, Sirica suffered from a wide range of ailments, minor and severe, related to his age. In the last few weeks of his life, he came down with pneumonia. He fell and broke his collarbone a few days before his death, and was hospitalized at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.. He died in the hospital of cardiac arrest at 4:30 p.m. on August 14, 1992.
Henry Albert Schweinhaut
|Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Harold H. Greene