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United States v. Nixon

Citation. 418 U.S. 683 (1974)

Brief Fact Summary.

In a District Court case, the District Court issued a subpoena duces tecum to President Nixon, ordering him to produce records of certain communications with his staff. President Nixon filed a motion asking the Court to quash the subpoena duces tecum.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

  • Presidents do not have an inherent, absolute privilege over their confidential communications.
  • A regulation from the Attorney General gave a Special Prosecutor the authority to contest the invocation of executive privilege while seeking evidence.

Facts.

A grand jury of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia indicted several individuals, and named President Nixon as an unindicted coconspirator. The District Court issued a subpoena duces tecum to President Nixon requiring him to produce certain records, upon the motion of a Special Prosecutor. President Nixon filed a motion to quash the subpoena on privilege grounds. The District Court denied the motion, and the President appealed that decision. The Supreme Court granted review.

Issue.

  1. Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction over this dispute, where both parties were officers of the Executive Branch?
  2. Should the subpoena duces tecum be quashed because it demanded confidential conversation that would violate the public interest to produce?

Held.

  1. Yes, the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the dispute despite the fact that both parties were officers of the Executive Branch.
  2. No, the subpoena duces tecum should not be quashed.

Discussion.

  1. The Supreme Court held that the District Court had jurisdiction to subpoena the President because the Attorney General issued a regulation that gave a Special Prosecutor the authority to contest the President’s invocation of privilege. The Attorney General had not amended or revoked this regulation, so all branches of government had to enforce it.
  2. The President interpreted the Constitution as providing an absolute privilege over confidential Presidential communications, and the Supreme Court recognized that all branches of government should be afforded deference in interpreting the Constitution. However, Supreme Court held that its precedent established that it is the judiciary’s province to say what the law is with respect to the President’s claim of privilege. See Marbury v. Madison.  The Supreme Court then held that neither the separation of powers doctrine nor the public interest in confidentiality of high-level communications, absent a claim of a need to protect military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, were not sufficient to establish the absolute privilege that President Nixon sought. There is a competing historic interest in the rule of law, and the fair administration of criminal justice. The possibility that Presidential communications might infrequently be subpoenaed will not compel Presidential advisers to censor themselves. Allowing the privilege to withhold evidence here would hamper the administration of justice, and the judiciary’s ability to carry out its functions under Article III. The Supreme Court cited the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, arguing that the courts also have a duty to vindicate the rights that they establish.

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