Archibald Cox, a former Harvard Law School professor, came to national attention in the 1950s as a federal labor official. From 1961 to 1965, he served as SOLICITOR GENERAL. He is best known for his appointment in 1973 as the Department of Justice's special prosecutor in charge of investigating President RICHARD M. NIXON during the WATERGATE scandal. Cox's tenacious pursuit of Nixon's secret tape recordings precipitated a constitutional crisis, led to Cox's firing, and ultimately set the stage for Nixon's resignation from office in 1974.
Born on May 17, 1912, in Plainfield, New Jersey, Cox was one of six children of Archibald Cox and Francis Bruen Cox. He studied American history and economics before entering Harvard Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1937. After serving a law clerkship for the celebrated federal appellate judge LEARNED HAND, Cox entered private practice. In 1946, he became a full professor of law at Harvard. He held various federal positions in the area of LABOR LAW during the 1940s and 1950s, including that of head of the Korean War–era Wage Stabilization Board following an appointment in 1952 by President HARRY S. TRUMAN. Throughout those decades, he also arbitrated national labor disputes.
By the 1960s, Cox had established a reputation as a specialist in labor law. President JOHN F. KENNEDY sought him out as a campaign adviser in the 1960 election. After winning office, the president rewarded Cox by appointing him U.S. solicitor general, the attorney who argues government cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cox held the post until 1965, and then returned to teaching law. He remained a highly sought-after negotiator and mediator. He was chosen by the New York City school system to help settle a teacher strike in 1967, and by Columbia University to investigate riots on its campus in 1968. He served as a special investigator for the Massachusetts state legislature in 1972.
For Cox, the pivotal appointment came in May 1973, when attorney general designate ELLIOT RICHARDSON appointed him to investigate President Nixon's role in the Watergate affair. The scandal had been simmering since the arrest, in June 1972, of five Republican political operatives for breaking into the Democratic party's national headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Nixon denied any involvement. But after evidence suggested a connection to White House aides, he promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. When Cox took the appointment, Watergate was chiefly an embarrassment to Nixon; partly through Cox's efforts, it would become Nixon's undoing.
Since 1971, the president had been surreptitiously recording conversations in the White House, and Cox believed that the tapes contained key evidence. Cox put pressure on Nixon to release the recordings. Nixon refused, claiming that he had a constitutional right to keep presidential documents confidential. Cox warned that the refusal would precipitate a constitutional crisis. The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was also conducting an investigation and was then holding public hearings. The two investigations resulted in a lawsuit that sought to force Nixon to release the tapes, and U.S. district court judge
John J. Sirica ultimately ordered the president to do so. The president stonewalled.
By October 1973, Nixon had had enough. He wanted Cox gone. But rather than compromise the integrity of the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE by firing the special prosecutor, Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned. Nixon ultimately found someone who was willing to do the job. He promoted Solicitor General ROBERT H. BORK to acting attorney general, and Bork fired Cox. Cox told the press, "Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and
not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people to decide."
The public uproar following Cox's firing—including 3 million messages of protest sent to Congress—further destabilized the president, who was increasingly viewed as covering up his role in Watergate. Resolutions urging IMPEACHMENT were quickly introduced in the House of Representatives. Nine months later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in UNITED STATES V. NIXON, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), ordered Nixon to surrender materials that he had withheld from the Senate. On August 9, 1974, with impeachment almost certain, he resigned from office.
Cox returned to teaching at Harvard in 1976, pronouncing himself satisfied with the outcome of the Watergate affair. He remained at Harvard until 1984 and then served as a visiting professor of law at Boston University from 1984 to 1996. In his later years, he has advocated reform of campaign finance laws, delivering several speeches about the ethics of campaign financing in presidential elections. In 2000, he joined a lawsuit against the FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, claiming that political partyfinanced advertisements in support of presidential candidates were illegal. The case was eventually dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wertheimer v. Federal Election Comm'n, 268 F.3d 1070 (D.C. Cir. 2001).
Besides writings in the legal and popular press, Cox's prodigious output of scholarship includes Cases on Labor Law (1948, 8th edition 1976), Civil Rights, the Constitution, and the Courts (1967), The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government (1976), and The Court and the Constitution (1987). Cox is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of eight honorary law degrees from U.S. universities.
In 1997, Cox was the subject of a biography entitled Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation by Ken Gormley. The book focuses on Cox's long and distinguished career as a public servant. In 2001, Cox was honored with the Presidential Citizens Medal for exemplary public service.