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United States v. Nixon | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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United States Supreme Court

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U.S. Supreme Court Case

At a Glance

  • United States v. Nixon arose in relation to a series of crimes, cover-ups, trials, and congressional hearings, from 1972 to 1974, collectively known as Watergate.
  • In June 1972 five men hired by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. When the intruders were caught, the illegal activities of President Richard Nixon (1913–94) and members of his administration began to come to light.
  • The five intruders and two men associated with the Nixon reelection campaign were arrested, indicted, and brought to trial in federal district court, presided over by Judge John Sirica (1904–92). All seven were convicted. After the trial, one of the men wrote to the judge, claiming he had lied to cover up the activities of high-level White House officials. This led to further investigations and congressional hearings.
  • The ongoing Watergate investigations led to the criminal indictments of seven more men, including former attorney general John Mitchell (1913–88) and others in the Nixon administration. When the special prosecutor learned that Nixon taped all his conversations, he demanded the tapes as possible evidence for prosecuting the Watergate defendants.
  • Nixon refused to answer the special prosecutor's subpoena of the tapes, claiming executive privilege. The conflict over the tapes went to federal district court; both sides requested that the case go directly to the Supreme Court, where eight justices ruled unanimously that Nixon could not withhold information needed for a criminal trial and must hand over the tapes. Justice William Rehnquist (1924–2005) did not participate.
  • United States v. Nixon is a landmark case because it clearly establishes, following Marbury v. Madison (1803), that the judiciary may define the limits of executive privilege while respecting the constitutional separation of powers among the three branches of the federal government. The case reiterates the idea that no one, not even the president, is above the law.


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