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United States v. Nixon

Citation. 418 U.S. 683, 94 S.Ct. 3090, 41 L.Ed.2d 1039 (1974)

Brief Fact Summary.

The Special prosecutor, appointed to investigate the Watergate Scandal, subpoenaed recordings and other documents involving meetings between President Nixon and his staff.  Nixon motioned to dismiss the subpoena, citing an “absolute executive privilege” to the recordings and documents.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A generalized claim of Presidential privilege based on a “broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest” does not overcome the fair administration of justice.  While the Court must show the utmost deference to confidentiality in matters regarding the military or diplomatic secrets, there is no “absolute” Presidential privilege.


In United States v. Mitchell, seven members of President Nixon’s staff were indicted for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States for their involvement in the Watergate Scandal.  Although the President himself was not indicted, he was named as an unindicted coconspirator.  The Special prosecutor subpoenaed recordings and other documents involving meetings between the President and his staff.  Nixon motioned to dismiss the subpoena, citing an “absolute executive privilege” to the recordings and documents.


(1)  Whether the claim was an intra-branch dispute within the Executive Branch and thus non-justiciable.

(2) Whether the subpoena should have been quashed because of the need for protection of communications between the President and his advisors or because of separation of powers concerns.


CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER holding:  (1) No, the claim was justiciable.  The Special Prosecutor, given the circumstances surrounding the Watergate scandal, had been granted the power to contest the invocation of executive privilege.  So long as the the regulation under which the Special Prosecutor was acting remained in force, the Executive Branch was bound by it.

(2) No.  Neither the need for confidential communications between the President and his advisors nor separation of powers concerns justified “an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.”


In addressing the separation of powers issue, the Court reasoned that “the separate powers were not intended to operate with absolute independence.”  The Branches are coequal.  An unqualified Presidential privilege against producing confidential documents would make it impossible for the Court to fulfill its duty to do justice in criminal prosecutions.

The Court rejected the argument that the President could defeat an otherwise valid subpoena with a “broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations.”  If the Court were to allow the President to do this, it would diminish the Court’s role under Article III and would eradicate other constitutional guarantees.  The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process of law, and the Sixth Amendment confers upon every criminal defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” and “to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor.”  In balancing the need for a general Presidential privilege against these constitutional guarantees, such broad justifications were insufficient.

The Court acknowledged the importance of maintaining confidentiality and protecting communications between government officials.  However, “absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets,” in camera review of confidential communications does not significantly diminish the protection of confidential conversations among government officials.

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