United States v. Nixon

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
United States v. Nixon
Argued July 8, 1974
Decided July 24, 1974
Full case nameUnited States v. Richard Milhous Nixon, President of the United States, et al.
Citations418 U.S. 683 (more)
94 S. Ct. 3090; 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 93
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorUnited States v. Mitchell, 377 F. Supp. 1326 (D.D.C. 1666(; cert. before judgment to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Cir.
The Supreme Court does have the final voice in determining constitutional questions; no person, not even the president of the United States, is completely above the law; and the president cannot use executive privilege as an excuse to withhold evidence that is "demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial."
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William O. Douglas · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
Case opinion
MajorityBurger, joined by Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell
Rehnquist took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that resulted in a unanimous decision against President Richard Nixon, ordering him to deliver tape recordings and other subpoenaed materials to a federal district court. Issued on July 24, 1974, the decision was important to the late stages of the Watergate scandal, when there was an ongoing impeachment process against Richard Nixon. United States v. Nixon is considered a crucial precedent limiting the power of any U.S. president to claim executive privilege.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the opinion for a unanimous court, joined by Justices William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell. Burger, Blackmun, and Powell were appointed to the Court by Nixon during his first term. Associate Justice William Rehnquist recused himself as he had previously served in the Nixon administration as an Assistant Attorney General.[1]


The case arose out of the Watergate scandal, which began during the 1972 presidential campaign between President Nixon and his Democratic challenger, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. On June 17, 1972, about five months before the election, five men broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.; these men were later found to have ties with the Nixon administration.[2]

In May 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed Archibald Cox to the position of special prosecutor, charged with investigating the break-in.[3] Later that year, on October 20, Nixon ordered that Cox be fired, precipitating the immediate departures of both Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre".[4][5] Cox's firing kindled a firestorm of protest,[6] forcing Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.[7]

In April 1974, Jaworski obtained a subpoena ordering Nixon to release certain tapes and papers related to specific meetings between the President and those indicted by the grand jury. Those tapes and the conversations they revealed were believed to contain damaging evidence involving the indicted men and perhaps the President himself.[8]

Hoping that Jaworski and the public would be satisfied, Nixon turned over edited transcripts of 43 conversations, including portions of 20 conversations demanded by the subpoena. James D. St. Clair, Nixon's attorney, then requested Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to quash the subpoena. While arguing before Sirica, St. Clair stated that:

The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.[9]

Sirica denied Nixon's motion and ordered the President to turn the tapes over by May 31.[10] Both Nixon and Jaworski appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on July 8. Nixon's attorney argued the matter should not be subject to "judicial resolution" since the matter was a dispute within the executive branch and the branch should resolve the dispute itself. Also, he claimed Special Prosecutor Jaworski had not proven the requested materials were absolutely necessary for the trial of the seven men. Besides, he claimed Nixon had an absolute executive privilege to protect communications between "high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in carrying out their duties."


Less than three weeks after oral arguments, the Court issued its decision.

Within the court there was never much doubt about the general outcome. July 9, the day following oral arguments, all eight justices (Justice William H. Rehnquist recused himself due to his close association with several Watergate conspirators, including Attorneys General John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst, prior to his appointment to the Court) indicated to each other that they would rule against the president.[11] The justices struggled to settle on an opinion that all eight could agree to, however, with the major issue being how much of a constitutional standard could be established for what executive privilege did mean.

Burger's first draft was deemed problematic and insufficient by the rest of the court, leading the other Justices to criticize and re-write major parts of the draft. The final draft would eventually heavily incorporate Justice Blackmun's re-writing of Facts of the Case, Justice Douglas' appealability section, Justice Brennan's thoughts on standing, Justice White's standards on admissibility and relevance, and Justices Powell and Stewart's interpretation of the executive privilege.[12]

The stakes were so high, in that the tapes most likely contained evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the President and his men, that they wanted no dissent.[13] Despite the Chief Justice's hostility to allowing the other Justices to participate in the drafting of the opinion, the final version was agreed to on July 23, the day before the decision was announced, and would contain the work of all the Justices.[14] Chief Justice Burger delivered the decision from the bench and the very fact that he was doing so meant that knowledgeable onlookers realized the decision must be unanimous.

The Court's opinion found that the courts could indeed intervene on the matter and that Special Counsel Jaworski had proven a "sufficient likelihood that each of the tapes contains conversations relevant to the offenses charged in the indictment". While the Court acknowledged that the principle of executive privilege did exist, the Court would also directly reject President Nixon's claim to an "absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances."

The Court held that a claim of Presidential privilege as to materials subpoenaed for use in a criminal trial cannot override the needs of the judicial process if that claim is based, not on the ground that military or diplomatic secrets are implicated, but merely on the ground of a generalized interest in confidentiality.

It concluded that "when the ground for asserting of the privilege as to subpoenaed materials, sought for use in a criminal trial, is based solely on the generalized interest in confidentiality as distinguished from the situations whereat maybe based upon military secret or diplomatic secrets, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice."[15]

Nixon was then ordered to deliver the subpoenaed materials to the District Court.

Nixon resigned sixteen days later, on August 9, 1974.


  1. ^ Kutler, Stanley L. (1992). The Wars of Watergate. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 508. ISBN 0-393-30827-8. Retrieved May 4, 2009. Rehnquist recused himself in the case, citing his past association with the Nixon Administration.
  2. ^ "A burglary turns into a constitutional crisis". cnn.com. June 16, 2004. Retrieved October 31, 2019.
  3. ^ "Senate Hearings: Overview". fordlibrarymuseum.gov. Retrieved October 31, 2019.
  4. ^ Lewis, Neil A. (January 1, 2000). "Elliot Richardson Dies at 79; Stood Up to Nixon and Resigned In 'Saturday Night Massacre'". The New York Times. Retrieved October 31, 2019 – via The Times's print archive.
  5. ^ Gormley, Ken (October 20, 2015). "The Saturday Night Massacre: How our Constitution trumped a reckless President". Constitution Daily. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: National Constitutional Center. Retrieved October 31, 2019.
  6. ^ "Nixon Backs Down After A 'Firestorm' of Protest" (PDF). The San Francisco Chronicle. October 28, 1973. Retrieved October 31, 2019 – via The Weisberg Collection. Hood College, Frederick, Maryland.
  7. ^ "Battle for the Tapes: Timeline". fordlibrarymuseum.gov. Retrieved October 31, 2019.
  8. ^ "Can the President Be Indicted? A Long-Hidden Legal Memo Says Yes". Arthur Gregg Sulzberger. July 22, 2017.
  9. ^ Trachtman, Michael G. (2007). The Supremes' Greatest Hits: The 34 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life. Sterling. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-4027-4107-4. Retrieved 2011-05-12. President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV.
  10. ^ United States v. Mitchell, 377 F. Supp. 1326 (D.D.C. 1974).
  11. ^ Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, The Brethren, p. 368.
  12. ^ Woodward, p. 377
  13. ^ Woodward, p. 412
  14. ^ Woodward, p. 413
  15. ^ "Oyez Project".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]