Dick Cates: The Madison lawyer who held Nixon to account

Richard Cates, a Madison trial lawyer who historians credit with playing a critical role in the Watergate inquiry that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, died Wednesday at age 85.

Cates was already a distinguished Wisconsin lawyer with more than two decades of experience as a Dane County Assistant district attorney, Wisconsin state legislator, Madison School Board member and top trial lawyer when he was contacted in November 1973 by U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino, D-New Jersey. The task was to join the team of lawyers that was pursuing the array of White House scandals that came to be known by the name of the Washington, D.C., office building where operatives with ties to Nixon and his aides broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

As an associate special general counsel to the Judiciary Committee, Cates worked with a team of top lawyers from around the country, including a recent Yale Law School grad named Hillary Rodham who later became Hillary Clinton and now serves as U.S. Secretary of State. (When Clinton finished her 2008 Wisconsin presidential primary campaign in Madison, Cates was at her side.)

As the investigation of wrongdoing by Nixon and his aides evolved in the summer of 1974 into an impeachment inquiry, historian Stanley Kutler recalls that “several (House) members turned to Richard Cates and other staff members for succinct summaries of the evidence and some clues as to the reasonable conclusions that could be drawn from it.”

In his groundbreaking examination of the scandal and the committee’s work, “The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon,” Kutler explained that: “Essentially, Cates disentangled the material from its rigid chronological setting to offer a coherent theory of presidential involvement in the cover-up.”

The committee would eventually vote to impeach Nixon, a move that was quickly followed by the president’s resignation.

Former Congressman Robert Kastenmeier, a Wisconsin Democrat who served on the Judiciary Committee, hailed Cates for “his outstanding work in Washington counseling and guiding the Congress in the impeachment process… He did so selflessly and effectively. For that, the nation owes Dick its eternal gratitude.”

Former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin observed some years ago that the state and the country “are deeply indebted to Dick Cates. As an outstanding graduate of our University Law School, he went on to a long and distinguished career as partner to my close friend and mentor, John Lawton. He was an outstanding legislator when I was governor. He has served the university as a lecturer, and the Madison community as a prosecutor and school board member. Most of all, he is widely known and respected for his role as Senior Associate Counsel to the House Judiciary committee during the extremely serious Watergate crisis. At every level in his career, he has been an enormously talented and effective defender of the rule of law, and a steadfast advocate for the rights of the common man.”

Nelson’s assessment was appropriate, as it placed Cates’ career in the broad perspective that Wisconsin knew him. The 1951 University of Wisconsin Law School graduate and co-founder of the LawtonCates law firm in Madison had a stellar 60-year career of legal and public service in Wisconsin. A Marine Corps veteran who served during World War II and the Korean War, Cates was a Dane County deputy district attorney from 1957 through 1958, a member of the State Assembly from 1959 through 1960, a member of the Madison Board of Education in the 1960s and a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Visitors from 1963 through 1969.

Democratic Gov. John Reynolds appointed Cates as special prosecutor for the John Doe hearings in Milwaukee from 1963 through 1967, while Republican Gov. Warren Knowles appointed him special counsel to the University of Wisconsin in 1967 following the takeover of the Commerce Building by anti-Vietnam War protesters.

In 1979, the state Public Defender Board appointed Cates as acting interim Wisconsin public defender. And he was honored with the Charles Goldberg Award for Lifetime Service by the State Bar of Wisconsin, which Cates served from 1985 to 1989 on its Board of Governors. A fellow with the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American Bar Foundation, he was admitted to practice in the U.S. Federal Courts in 1954 and before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970.

But Cates is in the history books for his role in the Watergate inquiry, where his assessment of Nixon’s wrongdoing profoundly influenced the House Judiciary Committee. It was Cates who was dispatched to discuss the case against Nixon with the committee’s Republican members and southern Democrats, who were most resistant to holding the Republican president to account.

Kutler recounts in “The Wars of Watergate” that these briefings had a profound influence on the reluctant committee members who would later describe the special counsel’s presentations as “convincing” because they provided “a very sensible, rational theory” for holding the president of the United States to account.

Congressman Walter Flowers, an Alabama Democrat who was thought to be leaning against impeachment, credited Cates with helping him to recognize that “if we didn’t impeach, we’d just ingrain and stamp in our highest office a standard of conduct that’s just unacceptable.”

“Flowers, the southern conservative,” noted Kutler, “found Cates to be always available, always helpful, and always ‘the facts man’ — truly, a lawyer’s lawyer.”

Author: LawtonCates

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