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United States v. Nixon

Nixon Fights The Subpoena

Nixon turned over edited transcripts of 43 conversations, which included portions of 20 conversations named in the subpoena, on 30 April 1974. On 1 May, however, Nixon's attorney, James D. St. Clair, went to Sirica and asked that the subpoena be quashed. Nixon had hoped that the transcripts, which had been publicly released, would satisfy the court's and the public's demand for information without turning over the tapes. Nixon was wrong: Sirica denied St. Clair's motion on 20 May 1974. Sirica ordered "the President or any subordinate officer, official, or employee with custody or control of the documents or objects subpoenaed" to turn them over to the court by 31 May 1974.

On 24 May 1974, a week before Sirica's deadline, St. Clair filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Both sides realized, however, that the critical legal issue of whether the courts could subject the president to subpoenas and other forms of judicial process would ultimately have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Further, both sides were acutely aware of the political stakes and were anxious to avoid lengthy litigation. Therefore, on 24 May 1974 Jaworski took the highly unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to grant "certiorari before judgment," namely to take the case without waiting for the court of appeals to make a decision. The effect of bypassing the court of appeals would be to get a fast and final decision from the Supreme Court, and on 6 June 1974, St. Clair also requested certiorari before judgment.

On 15 June 1974 the Supreme Court granted Jaworski's and St. Clair's requests and decided to take the case from the court of appeals. St. Clair represented Nixon, and Jaworski was assisted by Philip A. Lacovara for the government. Justice Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee to the Court, excused himself from the case.

There is a popular notion that the judicial system, especially the Supreme Court, is above politics. This would seem to be a myth. When Jaworski and Lacovara went into the Supreme Court building on 8 July, there were hundreds of cheering spectators on the steps. The justices themselves were obviously involved as well, and grilled both sides during the oral argument. Justice Powell questioned Nixon's claim that the tapes had to be kept secret to protect the public interest:

Mr. St. Clair, what public interest is there in preserving secrecy with respect to a criminal conspiracy?
St. Clair responded lamely:
The answer, sir, is that a criminal conspiracy is criminal only after it's proven to be criminal.

The government's attorneys were questioned thoroughly as well, particularly on the issue of whether the grand jury set a dangerous precedent by naming the president as a co-conspirator when the prosecutors had not even requested an indictment. In response to Justice Powell's concerns, Lacovara stated:

Grand Juries usually are not malicious. Even prosecutors cannot be assumed to be malicious . . . I submit to you, sir, that just as in this case a Grand Jury would not lightly accuse the President of a crime, so, too, the fear that, perhaps without basis, some Grand Jury somewhere might maliciously accuse a President of a crime is not necessarily a reason for saying that a Grand Jury has no power to do that.

The Supreme Court issued its decision on 24 July 1974, less than three weeks later. During the intervening time, the justices struggled to write an opinion on which all eight of them could agree. Although Supreme Court justices are free to dissent as they see fit, they wanted a unanimous decision in this case because of the important issues at stake concerning the relationship between the executive and the judiciary. A split decision would weaken the impact of the Court's decision. Although Burger was the chief justice and nominally in charge of writing the opinion, in fact, all eight justices wrote or contributed to portions of the decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980United States v. Nixon - Significance, Nixon Fights The Subpoena, Nixon Order To Release, Presidential Succession, Further Readings