Today in 1974: SCOTUS orders Nixon to release all subpoenaed tapes

July 24, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryThere’s no doubt that decisions made by the Supreme Court are, in short, a big deal.  They can have a huge impact on not only the nation’s legal landscape, but also on the course plotted in country’s broader historical journey.

Even just this past term, the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, and in doing so effectively legalized same-sex marriage across the country.  The decision represents a significant milestone on multiple levels, and it will undoubtedly merit a prominent space in history books.

But Obegefell isn’t particularly extraordinary as far as Supreme Court decisions are concerned – at least in their ability to affect major change on the nation at large.  Such decisions were responsible for a great deal of important changes and events throughout American history.  One such ruling, decided 41 years ago today, was even responsible for precipitating the first and thus far only resignation of a sitting U.S. president: U.S. v. Nixon.

The Nixon ruling was one of the last major milestones of the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.  The saga began during Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972.  Towards the end of the campaign, a group of burglars broke into the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.  As the news story expanded, it became clear that the Nixon administration was covering up both the burglary and its connections to it.  As pressure from both Congress and the public grew, Nixon was compelled to appoint a special prosecutor – who learned that Nixon had covertly taped conversations in the Oval Office.

After discovering this information, the prosecutor filed a subpoena for tapes relating to specific conversations, and the district court subsequently issued a subpoena to Nixon requiring him to produce the tapes and documents requested by the prosecutor.  Nixon initially refused, citing executive privilege.  As pressure grew, however, Nixon was compelled to eventually release some of the tapes, although large portions of them had been erased.  Nixon’s attorney moved to quash the subpoena on the executive privilege grounds, which was denied by the district court.  Nixon appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review the decision.

In a unanimous 8-to-0 decision (Justice Rehnquist recused himself because he had previously served in the Nixon administration as an assistant attorney general), the Court held that the president’s right to executive privilege is not absolute, and that the president has no right to withhold evidence “demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial.”  The Court noted that while the president may be entitled to claim executive privilege to withhold information based on the need to “protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets,” such a need doesn’t create a “generalized interest in confidentiality” such that the president can withhold any information he or she chooses.

The ruling thus ordered the tapes released.  Although there was some uncertainty as to whether Nixon would actually comply with the Court’s order, the administration released the full transcripts of the tapes eight days after the ruling, including one that was especially damning to the administration and its involvement in the Watergate burglary.  Three days later, on August 8, Nixon became the first and only sitting U.S. president to resign from the office.

The aftermath of the Watergate scandal led to a large number of reforms around government transparency and ethics (including new reforms for attorney ethical rules).  Had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in Nixon, it’s entirely possible that Nixon could have served out his full term, and the changes following his resignation would never have materialized.

If nothing else, however, the Court’s decision directly contributed to the downfall of a sitting U.S. president.