United States v. Nixon
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued July 8, 1974
Decided July 24, 1974
Full case name United States v. Richard Milhous Nixon, President of the United States, et al.
Citations 418 U.S. 683 (more)
Prior history Cert. before judgment to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Argument S. Ct. 3090; 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 93 Oral argument
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
Case opinions
Majority Burger, 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 decision. It was a unanimous 8-0 ruling falling against President Richard Nixon and was important to the late stages of the Watergate scandal. It is considered a crucial precedent limiting the power of any U.S. president.

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, a Nixon appointee, recused himself as he had a prior association with the Nixon administration.[1][2]

Background[edit | edit source]

The Watergate scandal began during the 1972 presidential campaign between Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and President Richard Nixon. On June 17, before Nixon won the election, five burglars broke into Democratic headquarters located in the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C.

Nixon appointed Archibald Cox to the position of special prosecutor, charged with investigating the break-in, but then arranged to have Cox fired in the Saturday Night Massacre. However, public outrage forced Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who was charged with conducting the Watergate investigation for the government.

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.

Hoping Jaworski and the public would be satisfied, Nixon turned over edited transcripts of forty-three conversations, including portions of twenty 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.[3]

Sirica denied St. Clair's motion and ordered the president to turn the tapes over by May 31.

Both St. Clair and Jaworski appealed directly to the Supreme Court which heard arguments on July 8. St. Clair argued the matter should not be subject to "judicial resolution" since the matter was a dispute within the executive branch. 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 later the Court issued its decision; the justices struggled to write an opinion that all eight could agree to. 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. All contributed to the opinion and Chief Justice Burger delivered the unanimous decision. After ruling that the Court could indeed resolve the matter and that Jaworski had proven a "sufficient likelihood that each of the tapes contains conversations relevant to the offenses charged in the indictment," the Court went to the main issue of executive privilege. The Court rejected Nixon's claim to "an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances." [US v. Nixon] Nixon resigned 15 days later.

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Text of United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974) is available from: Justia · Findlaw

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