Cornell Law School

February 9, 2017

Former Law School Dean, Attorney General who Stood Up to Nixon, Dies at 87

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Roger C. Cramton, former assistant attorney general who stood up to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, died at 87 in Ithaca on Feb. 3. He was a former dean of Cornell Law School and Robert S. Stevens Professor Emeritus of Law.

Cramton graduated from Harvard with an A.B., magna cum laude, in 1950 and earned his law degree from University of Chicago Law School in 1955.

Cramton began his career at the Department of Justice in 1970 as the chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States — “an independent federal agency dedicated to improving the administrative process,” according to the agency website.

He was soon appointed by Nixon to the post of assistant attorney general in 1972 and led the Office of Legal Counsel.

The Office of Legal Counsel “is the most important government office you have never heard of,” according to Newsweek. “Within the executive branch, including the Pentagon and CIA, the OLC acts as a kind of mini Supreme Court. Its carefully worded opinions are regarded as binding precedent.”

Cramton’s promising career at the DOJ was cut short when he came head to head with the President in 1972.

At that time, Nixon was under attack from Congress for refusing to spend the annual budget allocated to deliberately defund legislation he opposed. Instead of supporting the president, Cramton infuriated Nixon “by concluding that withholding appropriated funds was unlawful, and his tenure at the Department of Justice ended,” the late Cornell Law Professor William Tucker Dean wrote in a dedication to Cramton in 1973.

Cramton was contacted by former Cornell President Dale Corson days after leaving the DOJ and was offered a job as dean of Cornell Law School.

As dean, he wrote several books and many academic articles concerning the U.S. legal system. His most recent book, Reforming the Court (2006) included ideas on how the Supreme Court could be improved.

Even after retiring from public office, Cramton continued to oppose President Nixon. “We’re in a situation of loss of leadership, paralysis of government, drift that’s going to continue for three and a half years,” he told The Sun in 1973.

Cramton is survived by his widow, Harriet; four children; two sisters; 11 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, according to the University.