United States v. Nixon: Arguments, Decision & Significance

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  • 0:03 United States V. Nixon
  • 0:42 Watergate Break-In
  • 1:34 Nixon's Claims
  • 2:15 Government Rebuttal
  • 2:49 Decision & Legacy
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The case of United States v. Nixon prompted the resignation of President Richard Nixon and established that no one was above the law. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the case and its historical impact.

United States v. Nixon

Ever wish you were exempt from certain rules or guidelines? Maybe you've argued a traffic ticket. Some people think they are above the rules or that the rules don't apply to them. Such is the case from time to time with politicians. A notable example was Richard Nixon, who was the president of the United States from 1969 until his resignation in 1974. As chief executive, he was involved in the Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon (1974) after he tried to use executive privilege to avoid turning over evidence as part of the investigation into the Watergate break in, which we'll discuss next.

Watergate Break-In

In the wee hours of June 17, 1972, a security guard discovered someone had broken into the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

Nixon denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the break-in and secretly took steps to prevent anyone from knowing he was indeed aware of what happened. He destroyed evidence and fired staff members who didn't cooperate with him. Nixon also tried to prevent the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from investigating. Nixon's involvement eventually came to light because of his aides. They revealed to investigators that he secretly recorded tapes of every conversation in the Oval Office. In an effort to calm things down, Nixon appointed a special prosecutor to handle the Watergate situation. Ironically, this led to his downfall and the case United States v. Nixon being heard by the Supreme Court.

Nixon's Claims

Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed by Nixon, demanded that he release the tapes of the conversations. Nixon was steadfast; he would not respond to the request even though he had been subpoenaed. A subpoena is a legal document that orders a person to do something.

Nixon claimed that he was exempt from the subpoena because of executive privilege. The concept of executive privilege, rooted in the U.S. Constitution, gives the president the power to keep any communications secret that relate to national security or the functions of the president. Nixon believed that in this case, privilege was necessary. He also felt that any issues over executive privilege were his to resolve, not any court or lawyers.

Government Rebuttal

Executive privilege may be a basis for keeping certain things quiet, but not when it deals with criminal acts and broken laws. Archibald Cox believed that executive privilege issues should be resolved by the legal system and not the president.

Keep in mind that the crux of the case came down to whether or not the president was involved in the crimes of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, not that he was involved directly in the Watergate break-in itself. Prosecutors wanted him punished for lying, trying to prevent the FBI from investigating the situation, and claiming executive privilege in a situation where it didn't apply.

Decision & Legacy

The U.S. Supreme Court considered all of the facts of the case and both sides' arguments. They decided against Nixon through four main opinions:

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