Study Guide

United States v. Nixon Main Idea

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  • Main Idea

    The case of U.S. v. Nixon revolved around defining the scope of presidential power. Nixon argued that executive privilege protected him against the power of the courts, which would mean he could keep highly sensitive information secret from the courts and the public. The Supreme Court's decision did acknowledge the existence and need of executive privilege—like to keep sensitive military information, or your baby pictures, from leaking—but in this case, they decided that executive privilege didn't apply. Because this was a criminal investigation into the abuse of power by the Nixon Administration, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over his tapes to the Watergate Committee.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. What was President's Nixon's argument for keeping his tapes private?
    2. U.S. v. Nixon references earlier cases like Marbury v. Madison. How has presidential power expanded since the Jefferson Administration?
    3. Should a president face jail time for crimes committed in office?
    4. How does the U.S. v. Nixon decision affect the use of presidential power today?

    Chew on This

    The president should never be above the law and should have to respond to requests for info just like any other citizen.

    If Nixon's suspiciousness hadn't made him tape every conversation in the Oval Office, the subpoena would have been unnecessary and none of this would have happened.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Many Supreme Court cases are examinations of lower court decisions that the justices feel are important enough to review. U.S. v. Nixon is one of 'em.

    It was argued at the height of the Watergate scandal, after a grand jury of the District Court of D.C. decided that seven people were nastily involved in a bunch of illegal White House operations. They were accused of all sorts of offenses including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice.

    As part of his evidence-gathering, the special prosecutor in the case (Nixon fired the first one) sought a subpoena from the District Court requesting that Nixon hand over copies of certain tape-recorded convos with some of the men who'd been indicted. Nixon had secretly taped every conversation he had in the Oval Office.

    It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Citing executive privilege and the belief that it was none of the court's beeswax, Nixon tried to quash the subpoena. Jaworski petitioned the District Court for judgment. They ruled that it was indeed their beeswax and that Nixon did not have an absolute right to confidentiality of all his communications.

    In other words, fork over the tapes.

    Nixon appealed, and both parties asked the Supremes to consider the case.

    Enter: U.S. v. Nixon.


    The Text

    U.S. v. Nixon is the written Opinion of the Court, penned by Chief Justice Warren Burger. It's a summary of what happened in the District Court, followed by the Supreme Court's reasoning that led them to affirm the lower court's ruling.

    Yeah, opinions aren't always fun.

    Anyway, it addresses a bunch of issues, like whether the judicial branch could intervene in an executive branch battle; whether the special prosecutor obeyed all the rules in seeking the subpoena; and whether Nixon's claim to absolute executive privilege (confidentiality) of his conversations was a legit reason to withhold the taped evidence.

    Even though the District Court put their decision on hold pending an appeal, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. They knew this was a super-important matter that had to be decided ASAP. They also recognized that this was a tricky case, involving a criminal prosecution with a sitting president who likely had tons of evidence about the crimes and might have been a co-conspirator himself. They tried hard to balance a respect for the office of the president with the defendants' rights to due process, which necessitated the special prosecutor's access to the tapes he requested.

    In the end, they decided that, absent some serious military or national security issues, the president's need for confidentiality was less important than disclosure of the information necessary for the prosecutor to do his job. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling that denied the motion to quash.

    Nixon was ordered to turn over his tapes to investigators.

    P.S. Knowing that the contents of those tapes would be the final nail in his coffin, Nixon resigned a couple weeks after the ruling.


    Nixon: "Uh, I'm the president. I do what I want, and no you can't have my tapes thankyouverymuch."

    Supreme Court: "Nope."

  • Questions

    1. What rights and privileges do you think a president should have that an ordinary person doesn't have? Is immunity and confidentiality necessary to do the job?
    2. How far is an administration allowed to go to collect information on its opponents? Was the Nixon White House crossing the line? What was it that allowed the Plumbers to engage in all their dirty tricks and be proud of it?
    3. Should Nixon have been charged with a crime and prosecuted even after he resigned? Would Nixon have even resigned if U.S. v. Nixon had ruled in his favor?
    4. How transparent should government be? Is there any information that the public doesn't have the right to know?
    5. How did Nixon's lawyers try to justify their belief that the courts couldn't intervene in the case of the tapes? Are there some issues that the Supreme Court has no business getting involved in?
    6. How much power should a special prosecutor have in investigating political scandals?
    7. Why did H.R. Haldeman keep the same haircut for 40 years?

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