The landmark United States Supreme Court case United States vs. Nixon arose out of the Watergate scandal, which occurred during the 1972 Presidential campaign between Democratic Senator George McGovern and President Richard Nixon.
The headline-making event happened just five months before the Presidential election on June 17, 1972, when five burglars broke into Democratic party’s national headquarters inside the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.
In May 1973, Nixon’s Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, appointed Washington attorney Archibald Cox, who served as U.S. Solicitor General under President John F. Kennedy, to the position of special prosecutor, charged with investigating the burglary.
In an incident known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox on Oct. 20, 1973. Despite the order, Richardson refused and instead resigned effective immediately. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused, and so he resigned. Nixon then ordered the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork considered resigning, but instead followed Nixon’s direction. Public outrage eventually forced Nixon to appoint new special counsel and attorney Leon Jaworski was appointed eleven days later on November 1, 1973. On November 14, 1973, a court ruled that Cox’s dismissal had been illegal.
In April 1974, Nixon was subpoenaed by Jaworski to release certain tapes and papers related to specific meetings between the president and the men who were indicted by the grand jury. The tapes were believed to contain damaging evidence involving the indicted men and possibly Nixon himself.
In an attempt to appease Jaworski, in April 1974, Nixon finally handed over 1200 pages of edited transcripts of 43 conversations, including parts of 20 conversations demanded by the subpoena.
Following that, attorney James D. St. Clair, who was Nixon’s chief legal council, requested Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to request a motion to quash the subpoena.
St. Clair stated in front of Judge Sirica: The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee opened impeachment hearings against NIxon on May 9, 1974. The hearings ended in votes for impeachment.
However, the judge denied Nixon’s motion and ordered the President to turn the tapes over by May 31, 1974. In response, both Nixon and Jaworski appealed directly to the Supreme Court. On July 8, 1974, St. Clair argued the issue should not be subjected to “judicial resolution” since the dispute was within the executive branch, and as such, the executive branch should be able resolve the dispute internally. In addition to the argument, Nixon’s lawyer claimed Special Prosecutor Jaworski had not proven the tapes were absolutely necessary for the trial and that as president, Nixon had an absolute executive privilege to protect communications between high government officials and their advisors.
The Supreme Court came to decision less than three weeks after hearing oral arguments. The day after the oral arguments, July 9, all eight justices, Justice William H. Rehnquist recused himself due to his close association with several Watergate conspirators), indicated to each other that they would be ruling against the president.
Despite being an issue with the executive branch, the Court ruled on July 24, 1974 that the courts could intervene and also that Special Counsel Jaworski had proven a “sufficient likelihood that each of the tapes contains conversations relevant to the offenses charged in the indictment.” The court had ruled unanimously to hear the full tapes, not have selected transcripts.
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