United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683; 94 S. Ct. 3090; 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974)

United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683; 94 S. Ct. 3090; 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974)

Facts—As a result of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the investigations and subsequent trial of a number of persons disclosed that President Nixon had taped an indefinite number of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski had a subpoena duces tecum issued to President Nixon. This ordered the surrender of certain of the tapes and papers to federal District Judge John J. Sirica for his judgment as to what portions of the tapes were irrelevant and inadmissible. The president claimed that these materials were immune from subpoena under the theory of executive privilege.

Question—Can a federal court order the chief executive of the United States to surrender materials that the president wishes to withhold as a matter of executive privilege?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (8–0, J. Rehnquist not participating). The Constitution does not contain any explicit reference to an executive privilege of confidentiality. However, the president shares not only in the generalized right to privacy that others have but also in his need for confidential advice. In a case like this involving a criminal trial, the needs of fair administration of justice had to be balanced against the importance of the president’s need for confidentiality. While taking note of the doctrine of separation of powers, the Court observed that there is no unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances. To read the Art. II powers of the president as providing an absolute privilege as against a subpoena essential to enforcement of criminal statutes on no more than a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality of nonmilitary and nondiplomatic discussions would upset the constitutional balance of “a workable government” and gravely impair the role of the courts under Art. III.

Note—This landmark case resulted in the release of incriminating information about President Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate Affair that eventually led to a vote by the House Judiciary Committee to im- peach him and to Nixon’s subsequent resignation before the full House took a vote or the Senate tried him. In a highly unpopular move, President Ford subsequently pardoned Nixon for any laws he might have broken.

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