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United States vs Nixon

Updated on September 28, 2009

United States v. Nixon

            During the term of Pres. Nixon, a criminal case was filed in the District Court against several individuals and named the president as unindicted coconspirator (418 U.S. 683). Among the charges filed were conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice (418 U.S. 683). In line with the criminal investigation, the court issued sub peona duces tecum to produce the Oval Office tapes to the Special Prosecutor (Finkelman 311). However, the executive filed a motion to quash the subpoena on the ground of executive privilege and that the case should be between the executive branches only. In resolving the issue, the Supreme Court ruled against the president.

            The Supreme Court reasoned out that the defense of intra- branch dispute without reasonable justification cannot defeat the federal jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court ignored the separation of power and the executive privilege raised by the president. According to the president, the communication and the documents being requested are of utmost confidentiality. However, the Supreme Court concluded that “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” (418 U.S. 683).

            In this landmark case, the decision has proven that executive privilege is not absolute. The privilege that is implied by the Constitution has been said to be strictly construed and consistent with the purpose of the privilege (Find Law for Legal Professionals, n. pag.). The separation of power doctrine is also not absolute because the executive branch will always be under scrutiny by other branch so as with other branches. In this particular case, the Supreme Court concluded that automatic immunity from legal processes has not been granted to the presidents (Hall and McGuire 301).

            Another significance of the case is that it extended the range of the judicial authority (Rossiter, Rossiter, and Longaker 196). Despite the claim of the president of the separation of power, the judiciary continued hearing the case on the basis that the issue is within the judicial department to review. In addition, the executive privilege was not even enough to bar the court from hearing the case and from dismissing the subpoena. More importantly, the Court “reaffirmed the truth by subjecting the President’s claim of discretionary power to the limits of law” (Rossiter, Rossiter, and Longaker 196). Although president have been bestowed with immunities and privileges, such power cannot override the common laws that involves the right of the public to scrutinize and be informed issues concerning national interest.

            Additionally, the case presented the effectiveness of the court in checking the secrecy of the executive department (Finkelman 311). Moreover, it has been serving as the partner of media and Congress in upholding the right of the people to participate in government debates. Furthermore, it serves as guardian in preventing executive activities that would put the nation in danger. Notably, the decision was enough to prompt the resignation of the president. Hence, the power of the judiciary does not only extend to interpreting the law but it has a greater impact on the life of the person against whom the decision is made.

            Today, this case is of paramount importance because of the threat that executive decisions poses. When the president speaks about national security, the civil liberties of the citizens are always at risk. Through the decision of the court, the executive’s decision is vulnerable to legal questions. By reason of such vulnerability, the line separating the three departments has slimmed down. It can be noted that the presidents who served after Nixon have been through judicial scrutiny also because of their decisions and activities. The separation of power is still a firm principle but in claiming such as a defense cannot stand alone if not supported by justifiable reasons. Meanwhile, in the case of Nixon, the Court found his claims of privilege and separation of power insufficient because there were no further assertions to support it. Usually, in several cases, the defense used in claiming executive privilege is national security. In claiming such, the president has the burden of proving with justifiable reasons to establish the danger on national security.

For reasons of harmony in governance and others, the principle of separation of power has been inculcated. The three branches of the government acts independently. In line with independence, one department cannot meddle with the activities and decisions of the other. However, such rule is not absolute. While acting within the bounds of their Constitutional duties and responsibilities, each department can legally question the other when the decision is perceived to have a great effect on the nation. This is evident in the cases of Nixon involving Oval tapes and the pentagon Papers. Further, in these cases, the right of the people to know the truth related to government has been upheld as against executive privilege and separation principle.

Finally, the decision of the Court in the case of Nixon greatly affects the citizens and the future decision. By reason of the decision, the citizens are informed of their right to participate in issues regarding national security. In addition, citizens can validly question the decisions of the president especially when it poses danger and when the civil liberties are at risk of being curtailed. On the part of the judiciary, the decision has become part of the law. This jurisprudence can be a strong basis in deciding cases that are relevantly similar to that of Nixon. It is noteworthy that some provisions of the Constitution are conflicting. As such, it is necessary to draw a line and through the judiciary, contrasting rights can be resolved fairly and intelligently.


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