United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), was a landmark United States Supreme Court decision which resulted in a unanimous 8–0 ruling against President Richard Nixon, ordering him to deliver presidential tape recordings and other subpoenaed materials to the District Court. Issued on July 24, 1974, the ruling 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 Assistant Attorney General.
The case arose out of the Watergate scandal which began during the 1972 Presidential campaign between Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and President Nixon. On June 17, 1972, about five months before the general election, five burglars broke into Democratic headquarters located in the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C.
In May 1973, Nixon's Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, appointed Archibald Cox to the position of special prosecutor, charged with investigating the break-in. In October 1973, Nixon 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 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.
Sirica denied Nixon's motion and ordered the President to turn the tapes over by May 31. 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, as on July 9, the day following oral arguments, all eight justices indicated to each other that they would rule against the president. However, the justices struggled to write an opinion that all eight could agree to, the major issue being how much of a constitutional standard for what executive privilege did mean, could be established. Burger's first draft was deemed problematic and insufficient, and multiple drafts ensued, with Associate Justice Potter Stewart becoming a de facto co-author of the final decision.
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 in some way to the opinion and a final version was agreed to on July 23, the day before the decision was announced. 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.
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." It 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. Nixon was ordered to deliver the subpoenaed materials to the District Court.
Nixon resigned sixteen days later, on August 9, 1974.
Rehnquist recused himself in the case, citing his past association with the Nixon Administration.