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Great Cases Class Gets Inside View of Watergate

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Robert Stein (’61)


On Nov. 16, 2010, University of Minnesota Law School Prof. Robert Stein’s (’61) Great Cases course featured distinguished guests who provided personal accounts of one of the most significant events in American history: the Watergate break-in and its aftermath.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale (’56), senior Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine Banks, and Francis O’Brien, chief of staff to Peter Rodino, then House Judiciary Committee chair, shared their perspectives with law students and numerous guests.

The Great Cases course studies 20 U.S. Supreme Court cases that have captured the attention and shaped the history of the nation. The decision of the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon upheld the Order requiring President Nixon to turn over the tapes of conversations in his office and set in motion events that led to the President’s resignation two weeks after the decision.

The Watergate scandal began June 17, 1972, with the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. President Richard Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974, but repercussions of the event extended for years to come.

Mondale was a leader in the U.S. Senate during the Watergate period. He played a key role on the committee formed to examine the abuses of law and power by the U.S. intelligence community and the office of the president that came to light during Watergate investigations (the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, or the "Church Committee"). As a senator and later as vice president, Mondale worked to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, designed to protect both national security and civil liberties.

Wine Banks was a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice before the Watergate break-in. When the obstruction of justice trial began, she was selected to be one of three assistant special prosecutors on Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s team because of her courtroom talent and record. She became known for her skilled interrogation of Rose Mary Woods regarding the 18-minute gap in a critical Oval Office tape.

O’Brien was chief aid to Rodino, who as chair of the House Judiciary Committee presided over the Nixon impeachment hearings and drawing up of the Articles of Impeachment. In January 1974, O’Brien described for Time magazine the evidence-gathering responsibilities of Committee staff: "We have to take everything that has been given to us, break it down into areas, decide what we have, what it means, whether more is needed, and how we should go about getting any more." O’Brien was Press Secretary to Mondale during the 1976 Presidential campaign and to Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 Presidential campaign.