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United States v. Nixon

Citation. United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039, 1974)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal subpoenaed tape recordings made of President Nixon (the “President”) discussing the scandal with some of his advisers. The President claimed executive privilege as his basis for refusing to turn over the tapes.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Although a President deserves great deference regarding his Article II constitutional privilege, that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced against other constitutional interests.


The special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal subpoenaed the tape recordings of conversations involving the President and his advisers regarding the scandal. The President’s counsel moved to quash the subpoena citing Article II of the United States Constitution (the “Constitution”) and its grant of privilege to the President. The President’s counsel also argued it was a non-justiciable question because it was a disagreement between parts of the executive branch.


Is the President’s Article II constitutional privilege absolute?


The President’s executive privilege is not absolute and must bend to Amendment 4 and Amendment 5 requirements of speedy and fair trials and of the ability of defendants to face their accusers.  Courts are not required to proceed against the President as if the President was any other individual.  Furthermore, Courts should review communications claimed to be privileged in camera (by the judge only in chambers).


The Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) had to balance the executive privilege against the rights of citizens to face their accusers and to have a speedy and fair trial. The Court made the point that the President is not a normal citizen, and therefore should receive great deference regarding executive claims of privilege. However, executive privilege is not absolute and must be balanced against the right of the accused in criminal proceedings. The Court took great care to limit its opinion because it was delving into a political dispute between the President and Congress, something the Supreme Court is loath to do.

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