United States v. Nixon (1974)

Following the Watergate break-in scandal (1972-1974), a subpoena was issued for tapes and papers related to meetings held by Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. The president claimed "executive privilege" to withhold the evidence, but the Supreme Court rejected his immunity claiming that no person is beyond the law. This decision reinforced the impeachment process and led to Nixon's resignation. These words are from the unanimous opinion written by Warren Burger. Read the full text here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. pursuant
    in conformance to or agreement with
    This litigation presents for review the denial of a motion, filed in the District Court on behalf of the President of the United States, in the case of United States v. Mitchell (D.C.Crim. No. 7110), to quash a third-party subpoena duces tecum issued by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, pursuant to Fed.Rule Crim.Proc. 17(c).
  2. conspiracy
    a plot to carry out some harmful or illegal act
    On March 1, 1974, a grand jury of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia returned an indictment charging seven named individuals with various offenses, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and to obstruct justice. Although he was not designated as such in the indictment, the grand jury named the President, among others, as an unindicted coconspirator.
  3. subpoena
    a writ issued to compel the attendance of a witness
    This subpoena required the production, in advance of the September 9 trial date, of certain tapes, memoranda, papers, transcripts, or other writings relating to certain precisely identified meetings between the President and others.
  4. contention
    a point asserted as part of an argument
    The District Court rejected jurisdictional challenges based on a contention that the dispute was nonjusticiable because it was between the Special Prosecutor and the Chief Executive and hence "intra-executive" in character; it also rejected the contention that the Judiciary was without authority to review an assertion of executive privilege by the President.
  5. arbiter
    someone chosen to judge and decide a disputed issue
    The District Court held that the judiciary, not the President, was the final arbiter of a claim of executive privilege.
  6. privilege
    a right reserved exclusively by a person or group
    The court concluded that, under the circumstances of this case, the presumptive privilege was overcome by the Special Prosecutor's prima facie "demonstration of need sufficiently compelling to warrant judicial examination in chambers...."
  7. mandamus
    a court order requiring an official to perform a function
    On the same day, the President also filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Court of Appeals seeking review of the District Court order.
  8. concomitant
    following or accompanying as a consequence
    This Court has consistently held that the necessity for expedition in the administration of the criminal law justifies putting one who seeks to resist the production of desired information to a choice between compliance with a trial court's order to produce prior to any review of that order, and resistance to that order with the concomitant possibility of an adjudication of contempt if his claims are rejected on appeal.
  9. contempt
    disrespect for the authority of a court or legislative body
    This Court has consistently held that the necessity for expedition in the administration of the criminal law justifies putting one who seeks to resist the production of desired information to a choice between compliance with a trial court's order to produce prior to any review of that order, and resistance to that order with the concomitant possibility of an adjudication of contempt if his claims are rejected on appeal.
  10. engender
    call forth
    The issue whether a President can be cited for contempt could itself engender protracted litigation, and would further delay both review on the merits of his claim of privilege and the ultimate termination of the underlying criminal action for which his evidence is sought.
  11. protracted
    relatively long in duration
    The issue whether a President can be cited for contempt could itself engender protracted litigation, and would further delay both review on the merits of his claim of privilege and the ultimate termination of the underlying criminal action for which his evidence is sought.
  12. oppressive
    marked by unjust severity or arbitrary behavior
    A subpoena for documents may be quashed if their production would be "unreasonable or oppressive," but not otherwise.
  13. relevant
    having a bearing on or connection with the subject at issue
    the moving party must show: (1) that the documents are evidentiary and relevant; (2) that they are not otherwise procurable reasonably in advance of trial by exercise of due diligence; (3) that the party cannot properly prepare for trial without such production and inspection in advance of trial, and that the failure to obtain such inspection may tend unreasonably to delay the trial; and (4) that the application is made in good faith and is not intended as a general "fishing expedition."
  14. specificity
    the quality of being particular rather than general
    Against this background, the Special Prosecutor, in order to carry his burden, must clear three hurdles: (1) relevancy; (2) admissibility; (3) specificity.
  15. impeach
    challenge the honesty or veracity of
    Recorded conversations may also be admissible for the limited purpose of impeaching the credibility of any defendant who testifies or any other coconspirator who testifies.
  16. construe
    make sense of; assign a meaning to
    Since this Court has consistently exercised the power to construe and delineate claims arising under express powers, it must follow that the Court has authority to interpret claims with respect to powers alleged to derive from enumerated powers.
  17. immunity
    an act exempting someone
    However, 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 judicial process under all circumstances.
  18. impediment
    something immaterial that interferes with action or progress
    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 Art. III.
  19. unqualified
    not limited or restricted
    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 Art. III.
  20. absolute
    complete and without restriction or qualification
    In designing the structure of our Government and dividing and allocating the sovereign power among three co-equal branches, the Framers of the Constitution sought to provide a comprehensive system, but the separate powers were not intended to operate with absolute independence.
  21. enjoin
    give instructions to or direct somebody to do something
    While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplate that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity.
  22. impair
    make worse or less effective
    To read the Art. II powers of the President as providing an absolute privilege as against a subpoena essential to enforcement of criminal statutes on no more than a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality of nonmilitary and nondiplomatic discussions would upset the constitutional balance of "a workable government" and gravely impair the role of the courts under Art. III.
  23. confidentiality
    discretion in keeping secret information
    The expectation of a President to the confidentiality of his conversations and correspondence, like the claim of confidentiality of judicial deliberations, for example, has all the values to which we accord deference for the privacy of all citizens and, added to those values, is the necessity for protection of the public interest in candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions in Presidential decisionmaking.
  24. deference
    a disposition or tendency to yield to the will of others
    The expectation of a President to the confidentiality of his conversations and correspondence, like the claim of confidentiality of judicial deliberations, for example, has all the values to which we accord deference for the privacy of all citizens and, added to those values, is the necessity for protection of the public interest in candid, objective, and even blunt or harsh opinions in Presidential decisionmaking.
  25. presumptive
    having a reasonable basis for belief or acceptance
    These are the considerations justifying a presumptive privilege for Presidential communications.
  26. integrity
    moral soundness
    The very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full disclosure of all the facts, within the framework of the rules of evidence.
  27. compel
    force somebody to do something
    Thus, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no man "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."
  28. disclosure
    the act of making something evident
    In this case, the President challenges a subpoena served on him as a third party requiring the production of materials for use in a criminal prosecution; he does so on the claim that he has a privilege against disclosure of confidential communications.
  29. diplomatic
    relating to negotiation between nations
    He does not place his claim of privilege on the ground they are military or diplomatic secrets.
  30. jeopardize
    pose a threat to; present a danger to
    When this is the case, the occasion for the privilege is appropriate, and the court should not jeopardize the security which the privilege is meant to protect by insisting upon an examination of the evidence, even by the judge alone, in chambers.
  31. compulsory
    required by rule
    The Sixth Amendment explicitly confers upon every defendant in a criminal trial the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him" and "to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor."
  32. vindicate
    maintain, uphold, or defend
    It is the manifest duty of the courts to vindicate those guarantees, and to accomplish that it is essential that all relevant and admissible evidence be produced.
  33. inroad
    an encroachment or intrusion
    In this case, we must weigh the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications in performance of the President's responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice.
  34. entitled
    qualified for by right according to law
    The interest in preserving confidentiality is weighty indeed, and entitled to great respect.
  35. adjudication
    the final judgment in a legal proceeding
    A President's acknowledged need for confidentiality in the communications of his office is general in nature, whereas the constitutional need for production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding is specific and central to the fair adjudication of a particular criminal case in the administration of justice.
  36. prosecution
    legal proceedings against a defendant for criminal behavior
    Without access to specific facts, a criminal prosecution may be totally frustrated.
  37. vitiate
    take away the legal force of or render ineffective
    The President's broad interest in confidentiality of communications will not be vitiated by disclosure of a limited number of conversations preliminarily shown to have some bearing on the pending criminal cases.
  38. prevail
    be larger in number, quantity, power, status or importance
    We conclude that, when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.
  39. yield
    give in, as to influence or pressure
    The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.
  40. excise
    remove by cutting
    Statements that meet the test of admissibility and relevance must be isolated; all other material must be excised.
Created on February 22, 2017 (updated September 11, 2019)

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