In July 1974, Leon Jaworski argued to the Supreme Court that not even the president of the United States was above the law. As the special prosecutor in the Watergate proceedings, Jaworski sought tape recordings made by President Nixon. The president claimed executive privilege, but the court sided unanimously with Jaworski, and the information on the tapes led to Nixon’s resignation in August. Leon Jaworski was a man whose experience taught him to both revel in the contest of public debate and believe in the integrity of the law.
Born Leonidas Jaworski on September 19, 1905, he was the third son, and first American-born child, of Central European immigrants newly arrived to Waco. His parents, Joseph and Mira Jaworski, immigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled into a life of pastoral ministry in the Evangelical Church. Eventually, Mira Jaworski’s ill health compelled her husband to seek a country pastorate, so the family moved from Waco to Geronimo, Texas, in 1907. However, she died only two years later. Both Leon’s parents were well educated, and Rev. Jaworski supplemented his children’s schooling by tutoring them. It was a desire to provide greater educational opportunities for his children that motivated Rev. Jaworski to return to Waco in 1914.
After finishing at Central Grammar School, Leon started at Waco High where he displayed the educational acumen to complete four years of study in three. An avid baseball lover, Jaworski’s small stature prevented him from competing in the game in high school, so the teenager joined the debate team. The experience sealed Jaworski’s love for verbal sparring, and he abandoned his earlier intention to join his older brother Hannibal in the practice of medicine to pursue law instead.
As a sixteen-year-old, Jaworski started college at Baylor. He completed one year of coursework before continuing his studies at the newly reopened law school. Jaworski graduated in 1925 with an LLB, the professional degree necessary at the time for practicing law. At nineteen, he became the youngest person admitted to the Texas Bar. To further cultivate his legal skills, Jaworski enrolled in George Washington University’s yearlong Master of Laws (LLM) program. His education now complete, Jaworski returned to Waco to practice law.
Jaworski cut his legal teeth in Prohibition-era Waco where the Ku Klux Klan still made its presence felt. He practiced alongside Tom Scott and Joe McNamara, and their firm handed several cases involving illegal spirits. Jaworski nevertheless tested the limits of community goodwill when he defended an African American man, Jordan Scott, charged with the 1928 murder of a white couple. He faced backlash from Wacoans for taking the case and believing the man was entitled to a strong defense. Though he lost, its publicity brought new professional opportunities Jaworski’s way. In 1930, he left Waco to practice with the A. D. Dyess firm in Houston where he stayed for a year before joining another Houston firm that would eventually bear his name: Fulbright and Jaworski.
With his colleagues—Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, and Bates—Jaworski practiced corporate law, developing clients in the oil and gas industry. Over his five decades with the multinational firm, he handled clients such as Exxon and Shell. When World War II erupted, Jaworski joined the US Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps where he took part in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, but declined participation in the Nuremburg trials. However, Jaworski was not an infallible attorney. One of is JAG convictions was later overturned, and his corporate ties and ambition left him open to accusations of conflicts of interest and ethics violations. Whispers of such conduct followed Jaworski through the most notable cases of his career.
Jaworski’s status as a litigator garnered the attention of politicians of both parties in Washington. In 1960, Jaworski argued fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson’s case to both campaign for his Senate seat and as John F. Kennedy’s running mate. A few years later, Attorney General Robert Kennedy tasked Jaworski with the litigation against Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett for defying a federal order to integrate the University of Mississippi. Jaworski achieved his greatest acclaim as the Watergate special prosecutor in 1974, and three years later he returned to Washington as the special counsel for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct charged with handling “Koreagate.” The matter involved Korean lobbyists’ attempts to gain influence over members of Congress. With that case, the most public portion of Jaworski’s career came to a close.
Jaworski died of a heart attack at his ranch outside Wimberley, Texas, on December 9, 1982. His legacy in the legal profession included not only his most public cases, but also his service as president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the State Bar of Texas, and the American Bar Association. Leon Jaworski debated his way from Waco to the top of the legal profession where he participated in one of the most significant legal cases of the twentieth century.