Study Guide

United States v. Nixon Analysis

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  • Rhetoric


    Uh, yeah, this is a Supreme Court decision.

    The goal here is to support an argument and they're using logic and reason to do it.

    Take this thrilling paragraph:

    Although the courts will afford the utmost deference to Presidential acts in the performance of an Art. II function. United States v. Burr, 25F. Cas. 187, 190, 191-192 (No. 12, 694), when a claim of Presidential privilege as to materials subpoenaed for use in a criminal trial is based, as it is here, not on the ground that military or diplomatic secrets are implicated, but merely on the ground of a generalized interest in confidentiality, the President's generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial and the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. (Opening.10)

    Not exactly a page-turner, but it makes the point: this is serious business and we thought a lot about it.


    In Supreme Court cases, you might think that appeals to ethos aren't necessary. These are the Supremes; they know their stuff. We assume they're knowledgeable and credible. They're not writing to persuade anyone; the decision's already signed, sealed, and delivered.

    Still, you can think of all the case-citing as an appeal to ethos as well as a map to the Court's careful reasoning, letting the rest of us know the extent of their (or their clerks') knowledge in order to lend credibility to their decisions.

    They also invoke an ethos-oriented argument in their demonstration of respect for Nixon:

    Since a President's communications encompass a vastly wider range of sensitive material than would be true of an ordinary individual, the public interest requires that Presidential confidentiality be afforded the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice, and the District Court has a heavy responsibility to ensure that material involving Presidential conversations irrelevant to or inadmissible in the criminal prosecution be accorded the high degree of respect due a President and that such material be returned under seal to its lawful custodian. (Opening.12)

  • Structure

    Supreme Structure

    The structure of the U.S. v. Nixon opinion is divided into six separate sections. Each section deals with a certain aspect of the case which explains (at length) the justification of the court's decision.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1: Summary of the Case (Syllabus/Opening)

    The first section of U.S. v. Nixon summarizes the charges against President Nixon (which you've heard a thousand times by now) and what happened in the District Court. It's a rundown on the issues in the entire case and the final decision of the Supreme Court.

    Section 2: Jurisdiction

    The second section begins the official opinion written by Chief Justice Burger. It discusses the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in the conflict between Nixon and the special prosecutor. The court decided: "[…] the judiciary, not the President, was the final arbiter of a claim of executive privilege."


    Section 3: Justiciability

    Nixon's lawyers claim that this is an "intra-branch" dispute within the executive branch, and the courts have no jurisdiction and need to butt out. They claimed that this matter wasn't a case that could be brought to trial. The Court cites the power of the Attorney General of the United States, whose authority has been delegated to the Watergate special prosecutor. Because of this authority, the case has justiciability and can be tried in the courts. Nixon's lawyers lose this round.

    Section 4: Rule 17(c)

    As defined in our "Glossary" section, Rule 17(c) allows a subpoena to order a witness to produce any books, papers, documents, data, or other objects to be used as evidence. In order for the special prosecutor to claim Rule 17(c), the special prosecutor must prove: relevancy, admissibility, and specificity. U.S. v. Nixon concludes that the special prosecutor did indeed clear those three hurdles.

    Another win for the special prosecutor.

    Section 5: The Claim of Privilege

    After the Supreme Court is satisfied that that requirements of Rule 17(c) are met, the court then considers President Nixon's claim of executive privilege. Nixon's layers claim that the subpoena should be quashed because "confidential conversations between a President and his close advisors that it would be inconsistent with the public interest to produce." The Supreme Court decides that "the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high-level communications without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances." In other words, executive privilege is not an absolute. Without a claim of military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security interests, the Prez has to cough up the evidence.

    Section 6: Footnotes

    Unless you're a law student, nobody really reads this part anyway. Just saying.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of U.S. v. Nixon is pretty self-explanatory. In this court case, the United States Supreme Court is trying the scope of President Richard Nixon's executive privilege.

    If you don't understand that, we have bigger problems: quit reading and go watch some cat videos.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    The opening lines of U.S. v. Nixon briefly describe the Watergate scandal and the attempt of the Watergate Committee to obtain President Nixon's tapes. The opening also explains how the special prosecutor (Leon Jaworski) has made a sufficient enough of a rebuttal to Nixon's claim of executive privilege, that the court is satisfied to continue.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The closing lines of U.S. v. Nixon discuss the need for confidentiality in the presidency, but at the same time the need for the fair administration of justice. It also tells the District Court, having had its decision affirmed, to get on with it ASAP.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (9) Mt. Everest

    Not gonna lie, this one is dense. Let's just say you'll have an easier time reading The Silmarillion.

    If you didn't go to law school, have Google (or Shmoop's handy glossary) ready to go when you're poring over U.S. v. Nixon.

  • Shout-Outs

    Historical and Political References

    U.S. v. Burr
    Baker v. Carr
    Marbury v. Madison
    U.S. v. Mitchell
    Nixon v. Sirica
    Cobbledick v. U.S.
    Alexander v. U.S.
    U.S. v. Ryan
    Perlman v. U.S.
    Louis XIV, King of France

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Clinton v. Jones
    Presidential Records Act Executive Order
    Monica Lewinsky investigation

    Pop Culture References

    Countless Watergate Time magazine covers 

  • Trivia

    Nixon dirty-tricks-master and White House "Plumber" G. Gordon Liddy went on a lecture tour in the '90s with LSD advocate and new age guru Timothy Leary, whom Nixon once called "the most dangerous man in America." Liddy and Leary took their show on the road to college campuses across the country—a totally unlikely duo trying to make a buck after their glory days were over. (Source)

    Watergate "Plumber" E. Howard Hunt considered smearing LSD on the steering wheel of a car owned by journalist and leak-master Jack Anderson, who was very critical of Nixon. He hoped it would leach into his skin and make him crash his car. He also considered drugging Daniel Ellsberg with massive amounts of LSD so when he testified at his trial, he'd look like a babbling, incoherent druggie. (Source)

    Frank Willis, the cop that discovered the Watergate burglars, cameoed as himself in the film adaptation of All the President's Men, the story of how Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate case. (Source)

    The hotel where E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy staked out the Watergate is for sale. Want to buy a piece of history? (Source)

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