Study Guide

United States v. Nixon Themes

By Supreme Court of the United States

  • Betrayal

    Remember that oath of office that the president takes while being sworn in that nobody really listens to? Yeah, there's a lot of good stuff in there about not doing what Nixon did while in office. Nixon would betray the country big time by doing something that he knew was illegal, and when he was caught, trying to cover it up.

    Thankfully, when our parents caught us trying to cover stuff up, we never had to go on television and admit it. But when you're the leader of the free world, the American people don't take kindly to being betrayed. Nixon knew that continuing in office was not going to be okay with Congress or the citizens of this country, so he called it quits.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. What was Nixon's worst betrayal during the Watergate scandal?
    2. Did the President's aides betray Nixon by being involved with Watergate?
    3. Did President Ford betray the country when he pardoned Nixon?

    Chew on This

    Through abusing the power allotted to him at the highest levels of government, President Richard M. Nixon betrayed the trust of the American people.

    For all his craziness, G. Gordon Liddy was the only guy who refused to betray his boss.

  • Power

    While Nixon didn't shoot electricity at Mace Windu while yelling "UNLIMITED POWER!" (how awesome would that have been?), the abuse, retention, and extension of power is a hot topic in U.S. v. Nixon.

    The Watergate break-in was all about wiretapping the Democratic National Committee so the president could use the information gathered from it to retain his office in upcoming election. If you read later accounts of the scandal by the White House Plumbers, it's clear that the attitude in the White House was to do anything and everything to control and discredit Nixon's political enemies and keep the president's power from eroding.

    Even though The Court refused to protect Nixon in this case, they ultimately ended up increasing the power of the office of the president by validating the existence of the executive privilege. Presidents after him would cite this court case to extend their power to refuse to cooperate with subpoenas.

    Where's a righteous Jedi warrior when you need him? We guess Chief Justice Burger will have to do.

    Questions About Power

    1. Do you think the court suspected that Nixon was abusing the power of the executive privilege even before they heard oral arguments?
    2. What does the Court say about the limits of the executive privilege? Is it reasonable?
    3. Was creating the White House Plumbers Unit an abuse of power?

    Chew on This

    The Supreme Court's recognition of executive privilege in U.S. v. Nixon both increased and decreased presidential power.

    Nixon knew the tapes would reveal that he'd do anything to stay in power, even illegal stuff.

  • Rules and Order

    Some people think the rules don't apply to them.

    Presidents included.

    Even though our Founding Fathers didn't have the privilege of hearing The Who's We Won't Get Fooled Again (Quadrophenia is a better album anyway), they put in place a system of rules called checks and balances to prevent the abuse and expansion of power by any one branch of government. When a president breaks the law or uses power that isn't given to him by the Constitution, these checks and balances are supposed to come into play. When Nixon attempted to quash the special prosecutor's subpoena of his White House tapes and records, the judicial branch stepped in to determine whether that within his legitimate executive powers.

    In deciding U.S. v. Nixon, the Court had rules of its own to follow, called "precedent." They had to rely on the judgments in previous cases that untangled the relationship between the various branches of government to make an argument carefully based on settled law. Their Opinions aren't just opinions.

    At the time of the decision, the justices had no idea of the absolute lack of law and order during the first Nixon administration—the break ins, political smear campaigns, illegal wiretapping, the existence of the Plumbers, etc. But by carefully examining the rules about executive privilege and evidence in this case, they ended up exposing the whole mess.

    Nixon had to play by the rules, just like everyone else, and he got taken down big-time because he didn't.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What branch of the government did Nixon think was overstepping its bounds in U.S. v. Nixon?
    2. Why did the Justices decide that the Court had a say in this executive dispute?
    3. Can executive privilege be used to support the rule of law in addition to obstructing it? How?

    Chew on This

    The decision in U.S. v. Nixon showed that the system of checks and balances did its job

    Nixon's attempt to hide the tapes from the prosecutors was more than breaking the rules of executive privilege; it was part of a larger cover-up.

  • Rights and Privileges

    What kind of special rights does a president need to do the job? Does he get special consideration because of his unique role as the chief executive? Can he break laws the rest of us have to follow so he can protect and defend the Constitution? What if complying with a law puts national security at risk?

    Tough questions.

    The president's lawyer had one take on it: that Nixon could operate like Louis XIV, absolute monarch of 17th-century France, answerable only to a court of impeachment. We're sure that impressed the Justices. Especially when they imagined Nixon in a wig.

    In U.S. v. Nixon, you can see the Court weighing the president's need for certain executive rights against the fair rule of law. They go out of their way to acknowledge his unusual position and the respect it deserves, while still not giving him carte blanche to do whatever he wants. They try to tease out situations where a president's claim to executive privilege (confidentiality) would be justified and note that any info he has to release needs to be treated very carefully.

    In the end, the court decided that the defendants in the case—the guys indicted for Watergate offenses—had rights, too: the right to due process, which meant that all evidence relevant to the accusations had to be produced. And the prosecutor had the right to the evidence he needed to prosecute. The court affirmed Nixon's rights to the executive privilege, but set some serious limits on it as well.

    Unlike Louis XIV, the president doesn't have unlimited rights regardless of what his attorney claimed. We bet that attorney wishes he'd chosen a less provocative analogy.

    Questions About Rights and Privileges

    1. How should the rights and privileges of the president differ from an ordinary citizen?
    2. Should the president be able to use executive to suppress an investigation?
    3. How did the U.S. v. Nixon define presidential privilege?

    Chew on This

    Despite the Watergate burglary being organized to help Nixon win re-election, it would ultimately lead to his downfall and resignation.

    Because of the legitimization of executive privilege in U.S. v. Nixon, presidential power has both increased and decreased since the Nixon presidency.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Most Americans believed that justice was done when Nixon resigned after the Supremes ordered him to hand over his White House tapes. After all, we'd been hearing about the Watergate scandal for a year and were inundated with newspaper and television coverage about all the gory details and unsavory characters. We knew that Nixon was stalling; we suspected he had plenty to hide.

    Who better to decide whether he had to hand over the tapes than the Supreme Court? The highest court in the land; the uber-judges who ultimately decide what is and what isn't consistent with our laws; the last word on justice and fairness; the Court of no backsies. Nixon didn't think it was any of their business, but the Court felt different. The ball's in our Court, they said, and agreed to hear the case: U.S. v. Nixon.

    Bottom line? Americans got to see that even the president wasn't above the law. Justice was done, and Nixon was out. Just like that.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Do you think President Ford's pardon of Nixon was just?
    2. Despite his considerable foreign policy achievements, do you think it's fair that Nixon is mostly remembered for his illegal activities in the Watergate affair?
    3. Should a president face jail time for crimes committed in office?
    4. Has any president done something worse than Nixon and gotten away with it?

    Chew on This

    President Nixon's full pardon by President Ford essentially allowed him to escape justice.

    President Nixon's resignation was the ultimate justice delivered to the American people.

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