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United States v. Nixon

Citation. 506 U.S. 224, 113 S. Ct. 732, 122 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1993)
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Brief Fact Summary.

President Nixon wanted to quash a subpoena directing him to produce certain tape recordings and documents relating to his conversations with aids and advisers.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Presidential privilege is valid only to protect military, diplomatic or sensitive national security secrets.


President Nixon was named as a co-conspirator to defraud the United States and to obstruct justice. A subpoena was issued to the President by the United States District Court and it required the production in advance of trial of certain tapes, memoranda, papers, transcripts or other writings relating to certain precisely identified meetings between the President and others.


Could the President claim absolute executive privilege for documents relating to conversations having to do with a criminal matter?


Chief Justice Burger opinion. No. The President holds a qualified privilege.
The evidence sought is for a pending criminal investigation. It is a judicial proceeding in a federal court alleging violation of federal laws. The Special Prosecutor here has the unique authority to conduct the investigation. The regulation that defines the Special Prosecutor’s authority can be enforced against the Executive Branch.
Although the President’s counsel reads the United States Constitution as providing an absolute privilege of confidentiality for all presidential communications, it is the province and duty of the Court to define the law. The courts have the power of judicial review and are the final arbiters of a claim of executive privilege.
However, absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic or sensitive national security secrets the need for confidentiality is diminished. No case of the Court has extended a high degree of deference to a President’s generalized interest in confidentiality. To the extent the interest relates to the effective discharge of a President’s powers, it is constitutionally based. Advisors would not be moved to temper the candor of their remarks by the infrequent occasions of disclosure because of the possibility that such conversations will be called for in the context of criminal prosecution.
The legitimate need of the judicial process may outweigh Presidential privilege. The President has a claim, which rests upon general public interest in confidentiality, not involving any military or diplomatic discussions. The absolute unqualified privilege would disturb the function of the courts under Article III. The very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full disclosure of all the facts within the framework of the rules of evidence.


Granting the President powers to keep evidence of the bribes out of court would upset the separation of powers doctrine and gravely impair the role of the courts under Article III.

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