On 24 July 1974, the Supreme Court of the United States announced one of its most historic and fateful decisions: it declared in a unanimous judgment that the President, Richard M. Nixon, must release tape-recordings of conversations which would reveal his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. After spending a day debating whether to obey the highest court in the land, Nixon capitulated and admitted:
Those arguing my case, as well as those passing judgment on the case, did so with information that was incomplete and in some respects erroneous. 1
On 9 August Nixon, faced with certain conviction in a Senate impeachment trial, became the first President to resign the office of Chief Executive.
The case of United States v. Richard M. Nixon grew out of the Watergate scandal - the creation of the ‘plumbers’ unit in 1971, the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972, and the perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy within the Nixon administration that followed in order to conceal from the American people the fact that the President himself was a party to the cover-up operation. The case was examined by the Supreme Court because the federal District Court’s subpoena on the President to produce 64 taped conversations was resisted by Nixon on the grounds of ‘executive privilege’. The public importance of the issue meant that the Supreme Court undertook consideration of the case and bypassed the US Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the President had the right to confidential advice and discussions with his assistants, particularly on diplomatic and security matters. However, this right could not be extended to a general claim of ‘executive privilege’ to deny the production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding, as this was central to the administration of justice. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote:
The impediment that an absolute, unqualified privilege would place in the way of the primary constitutional duty of the Judicial Branch to do justice in criminal prosecutions would plainly conflict with the functions of the courts under Article III [of the Constitution].
A President’s acknowledged need for confidentiality in the communications of his office is general in nature, whereas the constitutional need for the production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding is specific and central to the fair adjudication of a particular criminal case in the administration of justice. Without access
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Publication information: Book title: The American Political Process. Edition: 7th. Contributors: Alan Grant - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 128.
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