President Nixon was requested to produce certain tape recordings and documents relating to his conversations with aides and advisers. He refused. The court rejected the President’s claims of absolute executive privilege and of lack of jurisdiction.
The Court must weigh the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications in performance of the President’s responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice.
A grand jury of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia returned an indictment charging seven named individuals with various offenses, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and to obstruct justice. The grand jury also named the President as a co-conspirator. The court required the President to produce certain tapes, memoranda, papers, or other writings relating to certain identified meetings between the President and others. The President’s counsel, however, denied the request arguing the court’s lack of jurisdiction because the matter was an intrabranch dispute between a subordinate and superior officer of the Executive Branch and hence not subject to judicial resolution and because the President has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to provide evidence.
Can the President refuse to provide evidence required by the Court on the ground that the court lacks jurisdiction and the President has the absolute power to refuse to provide evidence?
No, the doctrine of separation of powers or the need for confidentiality of high-level communications, argued by the President, does not sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances. The President’s need for complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference from the courts. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises.
While the President challenges the request served on him, he does so on the claim that he has a privilege against disclosure of confidential communications. He does not, however, place his claim of privilege on the ground that they are military or diplomatic secrets. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, the important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is not significantly diminished by production of such materials. The high degree of deference to a President’s generalized interest in confidentiality has not been warranted by the courts in such cases. Thus, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a criminal trial.