United States v. Nixon
In the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon, President Richard Nixon argued, through his attorney, that as Chief Executive he did not have to comply with a subpoena that ordered him to turn over audio recordings and documents related to the Watergate investigation (a burglary of Nixon’s political opponent’s offices). The case established limits to the powers of Executive Privilege that presidents can claim.
Nixon sought to use executive privilege to avoid judicial proceedings, arguing that the requested material was likely not necessary for the court to obtain.
During the 1972 presidential election, the offices of the Democratic Party were burgled in the Watergate Building in Washington D.C. An investigation revealed that operatives working on Nixon’s behalf had broken into the building. The President later tried to cover up his knowledge of the affair. Nixon secretly tape recorded conversations in the Oval Office that implicated him in the plot.
A special prosecutor was named (Archibald Cox) but as he got closer to discovering the truth about the incident, Nixon fired him. Public outrage ensued, and Nixon appointed a new prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.
With grand jury indictments in hand for seven individuals involved in the break-in, Nixon’s records were requested by the court. The President stalled, releasing a portion of the material requested and claiming executive privilege allowed him to keep confidential information about the conversations that took place in the Executive Office.
Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed on the verdict but struggled with the written opinion, given the high stakes. When they delivered their decision to the public, Chief Justice Burger took the unusual step of presenting it from the bench, underscoring the gravity of the situation. The court’s decision negated Nixon’s protest and ordered him to comply with the court subpoena.
The district court that obtained the documents and audio recordings was expected to aid in Nixon’s impeachment.
President Nixon resigned from office two weeks later, the first Chief Executive to do so in U.S. history.