John Sirica was the son of Italian immigrants who moved from Connecticut to Washington, D. C. in search of a better life. There, young John labored as a trash collector, boxing coach, and acting instructor as he gained a formal education. In 1926 he passed the bar exam, was hired as an attorney in a small law firm, and lost his first thirteen court-appointed felony cases.
Sirica worked with the U. S. Attorney’s office during the Hoover administration. When he married in 1952, his close friend and former boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, served as his best man. Sirica increasingly became active in Republican politics and was appointed to the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1957. He soon gained the reputation as a maverick judge, at times irritable and careless, and earned the nickname “Maximum John” for his harsh rulings. It was not unusual for his decisions to be overturned during appeal.
In 1973 he presided over the Watergate trials. Quickly growing impatient with their pace and the lack of information yielded, Sirica adopted the controversial tactic of questioning the witnesses himself, and he instructed the jury to consider not only what happened, but also why it happened. Following the trial that saw five of the seven defendants plead guilty and two convicted, Sirica’s suspicions were confirmed, and the Watergate matter was transformed, when one of the burglars, James McCord, wrote a letter to the judge. In it he told how others in court had withheld information and that payments were made by high White House officials to ensure silence. Sirica made the letter public.
Within months, in Senate hearings, the existence of White House tapes was revealed. Sirica ordered the White House to turn over relevant tapes to his court. President Nixon claimed executive privilege, arguing issues of national security shielded the tapes from subpoena. The argument was quickly appealed to the Supreme Court, where the judge, who so often had his rulings overturned, was sustained by the nation’s highest court. The president had to turn over the tapes, and once their contents were revealed, Nixon’s fate was sealed.