The Burger Court (1969–86)

First Amendment

How did the Burger Court decide the famous case dealing with President Richard Nixon’s claims of executive privilege?

The Burger Court ruled 8–0 in United States v. Nixon that President Richard Nixon could not refuse to respond to a subpoena for tape recordings with his aides by claiming executive privilege. Nixon refused to respond to requests for a subpoena made by special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski. Cox (who was fired) and Jaworski were conducting an investigation into alleged corrupt actions by the administration, including the infamous Watergate scandal. Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena. A federal district court ordered him to respond and produce the tapes. Nixon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the judiciary did not have jurisdiction because the case was a dispute between officials of the executive branch (the president and the special prosecutor). Nixon also asserted a claim of executive privilege.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the U.S. Supreme Court had jurisdiction and that the president had to comply with the subpoena. Burger wrote 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.” Burger noted that Nixon based his claim of executive privilege on “disclosure of confidential communications” rather than “military or diplomatic secrets.”


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Supreme Court Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App