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United States v. Nixon

Further Readings

In United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the doctrine of EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE but held that it could not prevent the disclosure of materials needed for a criminal prosecution. The case arose during the WATERGATE political scandal, which involved President RICHARD M. NIXON and numerous members of his administration. The Court had to consider whether Nixon was required to turn over secret White House tape recordings to government prosecutors. Nixon claimed that the doctrine of executive privilege allowed him to refuse to release the tapes, while prosecutors argued that they had a right to obtain evidence of possible crimes, even if that evidence was held by the president of the United States.

The Watergate scandal began during the presidential campaign of 1972, in which Nixon defeated his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, by a wide margin. Several months before the election, on June 17, a group of burglars broke into the DEMOCRATIC PARTY campaign headquarters in the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. Aggressive investigative reporting by the Washington Post uncovered connections to officials in the Nixon administration. Though the administration denied any wrongdoing, it soon became clear that members of the administration had tried to cover up the BURGLARY and connections to it that might include the president.

Under congressional and public pressure, Nixon appointed a special prosecutor. When it was revealed that the president had secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office in the White House, the prosecutor, ARCHIBALD COX, filed a subpoena to secure tapes that he believed were relevant to the criminal investigation. When Cox refused to withdraw his request, Nixon had him fired. The resulting public outrage forced Nixon to appoint LEON JAWORSKI as a new special prosecutor.

In March 1974 a federal GRAND JURY indicted seven Nixon associates for conspiracy to obstruct justice and for other offenses related to the Watergate burglary. Nixon himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Upon Jaworski's motion the U.S. district court issued a new subpoena to the president, requiring him to produce certain tapes and documents pertaining to precisely identified meetings between the president and others. Although Nixon released edited transcripts of some of the subpoenaed conversations, his attorney moved to quash, or void, the subpoena on the grounds of executive privilege. When the district court denied the motion, the president appealed, and the case was quickly brought to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nixon refused to release the tapes, contending that the doctrine of executive privilege gave him the right to withhold documents from Congress and the courts. Executive privilege, though not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, was first asserted by GEORGE WASHINGTON. Presidents have argued that the privilege is inherent in executive power and is necessary to maintain the secrecy of information related to national security and to protect the confidentiality of their deliberations. Executive privilege did not become a major point of contention until the Nixon presidency, however. Nixon routinely used it during his first term to thwart congressional inquiries.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision (Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST recused himself because he had served in the Nixon administration), recognized for the first time the general legitimacy of executive privilege. Nevertheless, Chief Justice WARREN E. BURGER, writing for the Court, rejected Nixon's claim of "an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of IMMUNITY from judicial process under all circumstances." Burger found that [a]bsent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets," the need for protecting the confidentiality of presidential communications must give way to a legitimate request by the courts for information vital to a criminal prosecution. Burger noted that the judge would review the subpoenaed tapes in private to determine what portions should be released to the prosecutors. This confidential review would prevent sensitive but irrelevant information from being disclosed.

Nixon obeyed the order and turned the tapes over to the district court. When relevant portions were released, they revealed that the president had been intimately involved with the attempt to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate burglary. Less than three weeks after the Court announced its decision, Nixon resigned the presidency, thereby avoiding IMPEACHMENT by Congress.


Nixon, Richard Milhous; Watergate.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980