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In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, District of Columbia police officers discovered five men, wearing surgical gloves and carrying tear gas fountain pens, walkie-talkies, and wads of new $100 bills, apparently attempting to plant electronic surveillance equipment in the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment-office complex. The resulting investigation led to the discovery of the roles of several White House staff and eventually to the President himself. Richard Nixon was accused of severely abusing the powers of his office. Allegations against him included secretly bombing Cambodia, using the IRS to harass his political enemies, and using the CIA to squelch and investigation by the FBI. Many circles in Washington DC claimed that Nixon had become more of an emperor than a president. The question before the country was whether to embrace this “imperial” presidency or to restore the constitutional balance of powers, and it chose the latter.
The Watergate scandal was merely the catalyst that sent the country down the road toward the unfamiliar impeachment process. However, Nixon would not go down without a fight. The resultant Congressional investigation required the President to produce White House tapes and memos, along with personal memoirs. As soon as the alleged abuses began to come to light, Nixon appealed the subpoenas to the District Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court quickly granted certiori and decided the case of United States v. Nixon on July 24, 1974. Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the opinion of the court.
In their deliberations, the Supreme Court debated the issue of presidential immunity and confidentiality versus the necessity of the criminal justice system to obtain the evidence necessary to criminal proceedings. They pointed to the case of United States v. Burr treason trial in the early 19th century where President Thomas Jefferson was issued a subpoena. President Nixon had entered a motion to quash the subpoena on the grounds that “confidential conversations between a President and his close advisors would be inconsistent with the public interest to produce. Chief Justice Burger wrote that this contention was a broad claim that the separation of powers doctrine precludes judicial review of a President’s claim of privilege. His claim of executive privilege was by definition absolute, making him almost above the law. While the Court recognized the constitutional right for a President to claim confidential privilege, it also noted that the criminal justice system had the ultimate duty of discovering the truth in all criminal matters. This responsibility is often difficult at best, considering the problems of the court usually faced in obtaining sufficient evidence.
In support of his claim of absolute privilege, the President’s counsel urged two grounds: The need to protect the confidentiality of executive communications, and the implications of the separation of powers structure. Chief Justice Burger responded to these by writing, “Neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from the judicial process under all circumstances. The President’s need for complete candor and objectivity from advisors calls for great deference from the courts. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. In the absence of a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find 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 obliged to provide. The impediment that an absolute, unqualified privilege would place in the way of the primary constitutional duty of the Judicial Branch to do justice in criminal prosecutions would plainly conflict with the function of the courts under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.”
As on can see, the right of presidential immunity had never been challenged to quite this extent. In this decision, the Supreme Court made it known that the right of criminal courts to conduct evidentiary matters and see that justice is accomplished outweighed the right of the President to complete confidentiality in his affairs, especially when it is suspected that wrong doing
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Watergate scandal, Executive privilege, Presidency of the United States, Richard Nixon, United States v. Nixon, Presidency of Richard Nixon, Warren E. Burger, Separation of powers, Neri vs. Senate, Nixon v. General Services Administration
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