Summary of United States v. Nixon (1974)
Relevant Facts: See Watergate scandal. Agents of CREEP broke into Democratic National Headquarters and were caught in the act. It was slowly uncovered that President Nixon authorized the break-in, as well as several other incidents. Former White House counsel John Dean named Nixon himself in an ensuing investigation into the cover-up, and impeachment proceedings were brought against the President.
As a result of a grand jury indictment against 7 defendants, most notably former Attorney General John Mitchell, the President was named as an unindicted co-conspirator and was ordered by a District Court upon subpoena, to produce certain tapes, memoranda, and other writings related to specific meetings associated with the scandal.
President released transcripts to some of the tapes and then moved to quash the release of them all together on grounds of executive privilege. District Court denied motion. The Court took the case before the Court of Appeals could hear it, and then affirmed the lower court and remanded it for examination of the subpoenaed documents.
Issue: Under constitutional law, may the President of the United States, upon his non-indictment but association with a conspiracy which violates federal law, invoke executive immunity to interpose a District Court order which directs him to produce certain documents and recordings of meeting associated with this conspiracy?
Holding: No. When the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process law in the fair administration of justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.
Court's Rationale/Reasoning: The Court has at the very best before this case interpreted the explicit immunity conferred by express provisions of the Constitution on members of Congress by the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution, an express power. Thus, if the Court were to construe and delineate claims under express powers, then the Court should have the authority to interpret claims with respect to powers alleged to derive from enumerated powers. President claims (1) valid need for protection of higher authority and those who advise him; and (2) separation of powers insulates the President from judicial subpoena in an ongoing criminal investigation.
Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, the Court finds it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished by production of such material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obligated to provide. As for separation of powers, they were not meant to stand by themselves, as there are cases in which the powers co-mingled with one another.
Presidential communication is protected, however when the communication is not of a governmental nature, and there is a public interest in those communications, then the immunity granted by the Constitution does not exist. This is important to the adversarial system we have in this country. There must be a full disclosure of all of the facts, within the framework of the rules of evidence. This is essential to the carrying of justice. Both the 5th amendment (due process) and the 6th amendment (right to face adversaries is part of this carrying of justice.
In applying the balance test, Presidential communications are indeed protected generally, but in the instance of a criminal case, the protection cannot remain, for it would “cut deep into the guarantee of due process law and gravely impair the basic function of the courts.”
Rule: Balancing test weighs the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications in performance of the President's responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice.
Important Dicta: No court has defined the scope of judicial power specifically related to the enforcement of a subpoena for confidential Presidential communications for use in a criminal prosecution.