Elliot Richardson, the Attorney-General who refused to comply with Richard Nixon’s order to sack the Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, triggering a constitutional crisis known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”, has died in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 79.
Richardson was summoned to the White House on Saturday 20 October 1973 and instructed to dismiss Cox. The Special Prosecutor was seeking the release of secret White House tape recordings of conversations in the Oval Office.
Richardson refused to dismiss Cox and resigned on the spot. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to carry out the order and was fired. Eventually, Cox was dismissed by Robert Bork.
The Saturday Night Massacre became a crucial turning point in the Watergate scandal. It turned public and press opinion against Nixon. Three days later Nixon released some tape recordings, one of which was found to have an 18 and a half minute gap on it.
Richardson’s stand on that night ranks as one of the great assertions of the independence of the judiciary and the sanctity of the separation of powers. In his book, “Reflections of a Radical Moderate”, Richardson wrote:
“The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that public confidence in the investigation would depend on its being independent not only in fact but in appearance.”