Appellant: United States
Appellee: Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States
Appellant's Claim: That the president must obey a subpoena requesting him to turn over tape recordings of conversations with his aides and advisors to a special prosecutor.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Leon Jaworski, Philip A. Lacovara
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: James D. St. Clair
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None (William H. Rehnquist did not participate)
Date of Decision: July 24, 1974
Decision: Ruled against Nixon and ordered him to turn over the subpoenaed tapes to prosecutors.
Significance: The ruling established a constitutional basis for executive privilege. It also held that the president is not immune from judicial process, and must turn over evidence subpoenaed by the courts. The doctrine of executive privilege entitles the president to a high degree of confidentiality from the courts if the evidence involves matters of national security or other sensitive information, but the president cannot withhold evidence involving non-sensitive information when needed for a criminal investigation.
As daylight broke over Washington, D. C. on Wednesday, July 24, 1974, the threat of rain hung heavy in the hot, humid air. At 11:00 AM inside the packed U.S. Supreme Court chamber those who came to observe the day's proceedings sat in anxious anticipation. Suddenly, through the silent stately hall with its pillars and burgundy drapes, the voice of the Court marshal crackled,
Oyey! [give ear] Oyey! Oyey! All persons having business before the Honorable the Supreme Court of the United States are admonished to draw near and give their attention for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!
The opening word "Oyey" came from medieval France, was passed on to England, and now to the United States' highest court. Along with the words came a system of justice based on evidence. The matter of the day, involving seven close associates of President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974), concerned whether those men could be judged fairly in a court of law when all evidence surrounding their case was not made available. Nixon held that evidence, in the form of tape recordings, and refused to release the tapes by claiming executive privilege.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, strong and steady but without expression, read the Court's decision. Upon completion, at precisely 11:20 AM, the gavel came down and the eight justices (William Rehnquist was not participating) slipped back behind the velvet curtains. The Supreme Court had decided by an 8-0 vote that the executive privilege claimed by the President was not absolute (having no restrictions). The tapes must be handed over to the special prosecutor. For a moment the chamber sat motionless in a hushed stupor, the clack of the gavel ringing in their ears.
Theodore H. White, in his 1975 book Breach of Faith, wrote:
. . . the Roman lawmakers had said, "Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall." Justice at every level of American power, was now under way: in two weeks a President would fall.
Executive privilege is the right of the president to withhold certain information, documents, and testimony of members of the government's executive
branch, from public and congressional investigation. Although the Constitution never mentions executive immunity, historically presidents have claimed it to keep information concerning national security confidential or to protect communications between high government officials...