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What was the Supreme Court case US v Nixon about?


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United States v. Nixon, (1974) involved the disposition of taped conversations between President Nixon and various members of the White House staff regarding the Watergate scandal, the administration's criminal conspiracy to obstruct an investigation of the break-in at Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex, in Washington, D.C.


On June 17, 1972, five members of the Nixon re-election campaign broke into the Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., to steal important files relevant to the upcoming election.

When the crime was discovered, President Nixon promised the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would appoint Archibald Cox as independent counsel to investigate the break-in.

In the course of the investigation, Cox subpoenaed Nixon for copies of eight tapes containing conversations recorded in the Oval Office. The President refused to comply with the subpoena, claiming executive privilege gave him immunity from releasing sensitive information. He instead offered a compromise in which he would allow Senator John Stennis (D-MS), a respected member of Congress, to review the tapes and summarize their content for the prosecutor. Nixon claimed he didn't want the tapes or transcripts on the public record because he had used foul language and uttered racial slurs during the conversations. The President's resistance implicated him as being involved in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, making him part of a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice.

When Cox refused the compromise, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. When the men refused to comply with the Executive order, they were forced to resign their positions. The removal of Cox, Richardson and Ruckelshaus later became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

Due to strong public pressure, Nixon was forced to appoint a new prosecutor to the investigation, Leon Jaworski.

Jaworski went to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and obtained a subpeona from Judge John Sirica ordering Nixon to release tapes and documents associated with the Watergate investigation. Nixon responded by returning 43 edited and typed transcripts of the White House telephone conversations, only 20 of which were among those requested in the court order.

Nixon's counsel then filed a motion in District Court requesting Sirica quash the subpoena. Sirica denied the motion and ordered the President to provide Jaworski with the required material by May 31, 1974.

Supreme Court Ruling

Both parties appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

Nixon's attorney argued the matter was outside the Court's jurisdiction because it involved incidents occurring exclusively within the Executive branch. He also claimed Nixon had absolute executive privilege to protect the content of the tapes.

Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the unanimous (8-0; Justice Rehnquist recused himself for conflict of interest) opinion of the Court proclaiming the judiciary did, indeed, have jurisdiction over 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 further rejected the claim of unqualified executive privilege, and implied Nixon could be found in contempt by refusing to produce the evidence. Nixon's rights under this criminal investigation were no greater than that of any other person.

The Court also remarked that only the Attorney General had the authority to revoke the Special Prosecutor's commission but, because they refused to do so, the Executive branch was bound by the prosecutor's request, and the other two branches of government were bound to enforce it.

Nixon reluctantly complied with the ruling.

Under threat of impeachment and probable prosecution in the Senate, which would remove him from office, Nixon chose to resign in August 1974.

This case further established the power of the Supreme Court to act as a check on the Executive branch of government.

Additional Notes

Nixon had appointed four Supreme Court Justices, three of whom participated in the unanimous vote to affirm the District Court's decision: Chief Justice Burger and Justices Blackmun, Powell and Rehnquist (who recused himself). Ironically, Nixon chose these four individuals because of their hard-line conservative stance on issues.

The Nixon administration engaged in more legal confrontation over the extent of Executive power than any other administration. Other cases against Nixon's orders and policies included:

United States v. U.S. District Court, 407 US 297 (1972)

The Court upheld the Fourth Amendment in limiting the government's ability to conduct surveillance on people labeled domestic terrorists. This particular case dealt with wire-tapping the phones of three people conspiring to destroy government property. The ruling established the precedent that law enforcement must obtain a warrant to engage in electronic surveillance.

Train v. City of New York, 420 US 35 (1975)

The Court held that President Nixon had exceeded his authority by refusing to distribute 18 billion dollars in state aid Congress allocated under the Water Pollution Control Act.

New York Times v. United States, 403 US 713 (1971)

In a Per Curiam decision, the Supreme Court upheld the District and Circuit courts' ruling that Nixon did not have executive authority to exercise prior restraint against The New York Times and The Washington Post to prevent them from publishing parts of a Department of Defense report colloquially known as the "Pentagon Papers."

Case Citation:

United States v. Nixon, 418 US 683 (1974)

To read the Court's opinion on United States v. Nixon or listen to copies of the original Watergate audio tapes, see Related Links, below.