A unique “Watergate” clerkship
Christofferson started his career in 1972 on the frontlines of the case that ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon ’37. During a two-year clerkship with Chief Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Christofferson worked almost exclusively on Watergate-related matters, as Sirica oversaw all the legal proceedings related to the June 1972 break-in at Democratic presidential campaign headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel.
“He had great character and integrity,” Christofferson said of the judge with whom he formed a collegial, long-term relationship. “He liked to use his law clerks to bounce ideas off of. It was a great benefit to me and a tremendous education to get the benefit, really, of his years of experience in the law on those kinds of discussions.”
The Watergate cases exposed Christofferson to lawyers at their best and worst, he observed. When G. Gordon Liddy, a lawyer and employee of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, proposed the Watergate break-in to plant electronic eavesdropping devices, part of a broader scheme to disrupt the Democratic party’s convention, to U.S. attorney general John Mitchell, Mitchell protested its price-tag, not the plan itself. “I’ll never know why — and this is one of the saddest things about the whole affair — the attorney general didn’t throw [Liddy] out or fire him,” said Christofferson. “But all he said was, ‘It will cost too much.’” Mitchell later gave the green light to the plan when Liddy brought its cost down.
When it was revealed in hearings of the Senate Select Committee investigating the Watergate break-in that conversations held in the Oval Office and the Executive Office Building relating to the affair were recorded, the central issue before Sirica became whether the president could be compelled to turn the tapes over to Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. The lawyers who argued on both sides of the issue “are the ones who really made me proud of the profession I had chosen to go into,” said Christofferson.
As he listened to them argue the novel question about whether a grand jury subpoena to the president for the tapes could be enforced by the court, “I thought … this is why we have law and this is why we have lawyers. It’s a noble profession.”
Christofferson said he was particularly impressed by Sirica’s decision to sign the order compelling enforcement of a subpoena. Not only was it unprecedented, but the president had sent him a personal letter in response to the subpoena from the grand jury in which he claimed executive privilege; that letter is now in the collection of the Duke Law library. “Nobody knew how that was going to turn out,” said Christofferson. “[Sirica] could have been a goat as well as a hero and had his head handed to him on a platter by the Supreme Court. But he said ‘This is right,’ and he signed the order.” In fact, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Sirica’s order, a ruling that led to the president’s resignation.
A call to service
Christofferson also discussed his 21-year career in legal practice, beginning with Dow Lohnes in Washington, D.C., and then a series of in-house positions as counsel to the Hospital Corporation of America, senior vice president and general counsel for Commerce Union Bank of Tennessee in Nashville, and associate general counsel of NationsBank (now Bank of America) in Charlotte,
Although he was active in his church’s lay leadership at the congregational and regional levels throughout his career, Christofferson said he was somewhat surprised to be called to join one of its governing bodies, the First Quorum of the Seventy, in 1993. “It’s not something you train for — there’s not a career path that leads you there and there’s no basis on which you would expect that might happen,” he said. “But in our practice, our tradition, our commitment, we respond to these calls, part time or full time. We don’t say no.”
Christofferson moved with his family to Mexico City for three years to oversee church operations there and, afterwards, traveled widely to help oversee and facilitate its far-flung operations. In 2008 he was called by the president of the Mormon Church to serve on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a lifetime appointment. The Quorum takes overarching responsibility for the church’s activities and work across the world; Christofferson characterized his duties as “teaching,” in the manner of Jesus’s charge to his original apostles to teach the Gospel widely.
While no longer working as a lawyer, “I’ll ever be grateful for my legal education, legal training, and legal practice experience,” said Christofferson, citing the range of skills he relies on from analysis and organization to writing skills and the ability to communicate with others on matters of faith and social positions, that may be controversial.
Religious and secular voices alike on issues of social import should be given a respectful public hearing, he added. “The Constitution envisions that those sorts of conversations should take place. … All of that requires that we honor opposing opinions, speaking of us in the church, and that others do the same, and there be clarity of understanding of our positions. And then the people decide. That’s what our system is, our pluralistic democracy.”
Asked by Levi to offer advice to Duke Law graduates on leading “a moral life” in the law, Christofferson returned to his lasting impressions of the Watergate era. “As I listened to those hours and hours of tapes of those conversations as they went around and around how to resolve the morass created by one bad decision after another, it struck me that [the president’s] involvement came from a very human tendency to try to look out for your friends and be protective,” he said. He emphasized the importance of preserving one’s integrity — with clients, fellow lawyers, and in personal relationships, whatever the cost.
“I concluded that … the only thing that really is your safety is to stand on that rock of honesty and clarity. … If you ever once make an exception, you’re unprotected. That’s why I’m for being firm on that rock.”
“Lives in the Law” with D. Todd Christofferson can be viewed as a webcast. On April 14, the series continues with a conversation with Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States.