Key Facts– In June 1972, a break-in occurred at the Watergate building, Democratic National Headquarters. Gradually, high-level White House officials were discovered to be involved in a cover-up. Eventually, it was revealed that there was a secret taping system in the Oval Office, and a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate, Archibald Cox. After the prosecutor attempted to subpoena the Oval Office tapes, the President challenged the subpoena, losing the challenge, and then arranged for Cox to be fired. By 1974, a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, again subpoenaed the President’s tapes. The President agreed to turn over only edited transcripts, rather than the tapes, and then he moved to quash the subpoena.
Procedural History– The US District Court denied the President’s motion to quash the subpoena, and the Supreme Court granted review, prior to consideration by the Court of Appeals.
Issues– Does separation of powers preclude judicial review of executive privilege? If not, does the privilege justify refusal to comply with a subpoena in a criminal proceeding?
Results– Nixon is barred from using privilege here to refuse to comply with the the subpoena.
Court Reasoning– Separation of powers does not defend against judicial review, and while the President’s need to receive candid advice is important, it does not outweigh the need for due process in a criminal proceeding. Thus, a generalized claim of privilege not grounded in national security, diplomatic, or military secrets cannot prevail over a subpoena in such a proceeding.
Holding– Separation of powers does not preclude judicial review of executive privilege. In a criminal case, absent the claim of a need to protect military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, executive privilege cannot be used to evade a subpoena.