United States v. Nixon,
418 U.S. 683 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974)

United States v. Nixon

No. 73-1766

Argued July 8, 1974

Decided July 24, 1974*

418 U.S. 683


Following indictment alleging violation of federal statutes by certain staff members of the White House and political supporters of the President, the Special Prosecutor filed a motion under Fed.Rule Crim.Proc. 17(c) for a subpoena duces tecum for the production before trial of certain tapes and documents relating to precisely identified conversations and meetings between the President and others. The President, claiming executive privilege, filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The District Court, after treating the subpoenaed material as presumptively privileged, concluded that the Special Prosecutor had made a sufficient showing to rebut the presumption and that the requirements of Rule 17(c) had been satisfied. The court thereafter issued an order for an in camera examination of the subpoenaed material, having rejected the President's contentions (a) that the dispute between him and the Special Prosecutor was nonjusticiable as an "intra-executive" conflict and (b) that the judiciary lacked authority to review the President's assertion of executive privilege. The court stayed its order pending appellate review, which the President then sought in the Court of Appeals. The Special Prosecutor then filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari before judgment (No. 73-1766), and the President filed a cross-petition for such a writ challenging the grand jury action (No. 73-1834). The Court granted both petitions.


1. The District Court's order was appealable as a "final" order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, was therefore properly "in" the Court of Appeals, 28 U.S.C. § 1254, when the petition for certiorari before judgment was filed in this Court, and is now properly before this Court for review. Although such an order is normally not final and subject to appeal, an exception is made in a

"limited class of

Page 418 U. S. 684

cases where denial of immediate review would render impossible any review whatsoever of an individual's claims,"

United States v. Ryan, 402 U. S. 530, 402 U. S. 533. Such an exception is proper in the unique circumstances of this case, where it would be inappropriate to subject the President to the procedure of securing review by resisting the order and inappropriate to require that the District Court proceed by a traditional contempt citation in order to provide appellate review. Pp. 418 U. S. 690-692.

2. The dispute between the Special Prosecutor and the President presents a justiciable controversy. Pp. 418 U. S. 692-697.

(a) The mere assertion of an "intra-branch dispute," without more, does not defeat federal jurisdiction. United States v. ICC, 337 U. S. 426. P. 418 U. S. 693.

(b) The Attorney General, by regulation, has conferred upon the Special Prosecutor unique tenure and authority to represent the United States, and has given the Special Prosecutor explicit power to contest the invocation of executive privilege in seeking evidence deemed relevant to the performance of his specially delegated duties. While the regulation remains in effect, the Executive Branch is bound by it. United States ex rel. Accardi v. Shaughnessy, 347 U. S. 260. Pp. 418 U. S. 694-696.

(c) The action of the Special Prosecutor within the scope of his express authority seeking specified evidence preliminarily determined to be relevant and admissible in the pending criminal case, and the President's assertion of privilege in opposition thereto, present issues "of a type which are traditionally justiciable," United States v. ICC, supra, at 337 U. S. 430, and the fact that both litigants are officers of the Executive Branch is not a bar to justiciability. Pp. 418 U. S. 696-697.

3. From this Court's examination of the material submitted by the Special Prosecutor in support of his motion for the subpoena, much of which is under seal, it is clear that the District Court's denial of the motion to quash comported with Rule 17(c), and that the Special Prosecutor has made a sufficient showing to justify a subpoena for production before trial. Pp. 418 U. S. 697-702.

4. Neither the doctrine of separation of powers nor the generalized need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances. See, e.g., 5 U. S. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U. S. 177; Baker v. Carr, 369 U. S. 186, 369 U. S. 211. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, the confidentiality of

Page 418 U. S. 685

Presidential communications is not significantly diminished by producing material for a criminal trial under the protected conditions of in camera inspection, and any absolute executive privilege under Art. II of the Constitution would plainly conflict with the function of the courts under the Constitution. Pp. 418 U. S. 703-707.

5. Although the courts will afford the utmost deference to Presidential acts in the performance of an Art. II function, United States v. Burr, 25 F.Cas. 187, 190, 191-192 (No. 14,694), when a claim of Presidential privilege as to materials subpoenaed for use in a criminal trial is based, as it is here, not on the ground that military or diplomatic secrets are implicated, but merely on the ground of a generalized interest in confidentiality, the President's generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial and the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. Pp. 418 U. S. 707-713.

6. On the basis of this Court's examination of the record, it cannot be concluded that the District Court erred in ordering in camera examination of the subpoenaed material, which shall now forthwith be transmitted to the District Court. Pp. 418 U. S. 713-714.

7. Since a president's communications encompass a vastly wider range of sensitive material than would be true of an ordinary individual, the public interest requires that Presidential confidentiality be afforded the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice, and the District Court has a heavy responsibility to ensure that material involving Presidential conversations irrelevant to or inadmissible in the criminal prosecution be accorded the high degree of respect due a President, and that such material be returned under seal to its lawful custodian. Until released to the Special Prosecutor, no in camera material is to be released to anyone. Pp. 418 U. S. 714-716.

No. 73-1766, 377 F.Supp. 1326, affirmed; No. 73-1834, certiorari dismissed as improvidently granted.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except REHNQUIST, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

Page 418 U. S. 686

Primary Holding

The President cannot shield himself from producing evidence in a criminal prosecution based on the doctrine of executive privilege, although it is valid in other situations.


This case arose from the Watergate scandal, following a burglary at the Democrat Party headquarters in the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. President Richard Nixon, who was contesting the 1972 presidential election against Democrat candidate George McGovern, sought to quash a subpoena obtained by special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who had been appointed to investigate the burglary. (Nixon had fired the initial special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, as well as Attorney General Elliot Richardson during the infamous Saturday Night Massacre.)

The subpoena was designed to give Jaworski access to tapes and papers that concerned meetings between Nixon and people who had been indicted in connection with the burglary. There were reasonable grounds to believe that this evidence contained statements that would be damaging to Nixon as well as the indicted people. Nixon complied in part with the subpoena, releasing edited versions of dozens of conversations and parts of 20 conversations that the subpoena had named. However, he asked the federal court to quash the subpoena based on lack of necessity and the President's executive privilege. Nixon's attorney also attempted to argue that courts were not qualified to hear disputes regarding these communications within the executive branch. The federal district court denied the request to quash, while Jaworski sought complete compliance with the subpoena. Both parties appealed, and the Supreme Court expedited its review to hear arguments within a month.


  • James D. St. Clair (plaintiff)
  • Leon Jaworski (defendant)



  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

Recognizing the importance of unanimity, all of the Justices contributed to the opinion, which held that the judiciary branch was capable of resolving this type of dispute. They dismissed the notion that insufficient necessity had been shown for the subpoena, and the opinion focused on the President's executive privilege. Nixon and his attorney had cast this privilege extremely broadly, and the Court was unwilling to accept such an absolute bar to liability. They did find that a qualified privilege existed while the President is in office, but it could not extend to all circumstances and especially not to those in which serious wrongdoing was convincingly alleged.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Case Commentary

This decision balanced the privilege of confidentiality in presidential communications against the importance of providing clarity and fairness in criminal justice. Since the circumstances were somewhat unique, the case may have limited value as a precedent, but it does illustrate an instance in which the Court chose to check executive authority.

Nixon resigned from office about two weeks later. He was pardoned by the following president, Gerald Ford, for any criminal involvement in the events of the Watergate scandal

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