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United States v. Nixon

Citation. 418 U.S. 683 (1974)
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Citation. 418 U.S. 683 (1974)

Brief Fact Summary.

In a District Court case relating to the Watergate scandal, President Nixon was issued a subpoena duces tecum 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.

A regulation from the Attorney General gave a Special Prosecutor the authority to contest the invocation of executive privilege while seeking evidence.

The judiciary has the authority to say what the law is, as established in Marbury v. Madison.

There is a right to the production of evidence at a criminal trial, established in part by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The Fifth Amendment establishes due process of law, and the Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to be confronted by witnesses against them, and the right to process for obtaining witnesses in their favor.


In 1972, employees for President Nixon’s reelection committee broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. The Senate established a committee to investigate the break-in, and President Nixon appointed a special prosecutor to investigate any White House participation in the break-in. The House of Representative eventually began impeachment hearings for President Nixon.

In a District Court case—United States v. Mitchell—President Nixon was issued a subpoena duces tecum, ordering him to produce certain records relating to his conversations with his staff. President Nixon was an unindicted coconspirator in the case. President Nixon publicly released edited transcripts of some of the conversations subject to the subpoena. However, he filed a motion to quash the subpoena on privilege grounds.


  1. Did the district court have jurisdiction to issue the subpoena?
  2. Did the separation of powers doctrine bar judicial review of President Nixon’s claim of privilege?
  3. Was the need for confidentiality for the sake of general public interest sufficient to establish privilege?


  1. Yes, the district court had jurisdiction to subpoena the President.
  2. No, the separation of powers doctrine did not bar the courts from reviewing President Nixon’s privilege claim.
  3. No, confidentiality for the sake of the public interest was not sufficient to establish executive privilege here.


  1. 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 separation of powers doctrine did not bar judicial review of President Nixon’s privilege claim. The President interpreted the Constitution as providing an absolute privilege over confidential Presidential communications, and all branches of government should be afforded deference in interpreting the Constitution. However, Supreme Court precedent established that it is the judiciary’s province to say what the law is. Marbury. Additionally, the Supreme Court has invalidated other exercises of executive and legislative power. See Powell v. McCormack; Youngstown.
  3. The president has a legitimate interest in confidentiality of high-level communications. Confidentiality does serve the public interest. However, a general claim of confidentiality for the sake of public interest is not sufficient to justify executive privilege. There is a competing 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.

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