Forty years ago, on July 8, 1974, the Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Nixon, the landmark case that ultimately defined the limitations on the power of the president.
These were the issues:
1. Should the president be required to turn over the records of 64 conversations to Watergate prosecutors?
2. Did the grand jury act properly in naming Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator?
Underlying it all, though, was the real question: Is the president above the law? The prosecutors argued that the president was not above the law. Nixon's defense was, as it had been all along, that the chief executive is above the law – via the principle of executive privilege.
More than a year earlier, in fact, in February 1973, Nixon's own tapes showed that Nixon and two of his subordinates, H.R. Haldeman and John Dean, had discussed using executive privilege fraudulently – not to protect others but to protect themselves.
The executive privilege concept, while not addressed specifically in the Constitution, is based on the principle of separation of powers. A level of confidentiality is understood to be extended to a president and his aides in certain circumstances, particularly in matters involving defense and national security.
Then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist recused himself because he had served in the Nixon administration (in the Justice Department) prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, leaving eight justices to rule on the matter.
They heard arguments from Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski and Nixon's lawyer, James St. Clair, after which they reviewed the facts of the case and returned to hand down their decision two weeks later.
"Jaworski seemed nervous," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote. "He spoke awkwardly as he slowly recited the history of the grand jury's proceedings. He noted that the grand jury had named the president an unindicted co-conspirator, and then he moved haltingly to the heart of the matter. Who is the arbiter of the Constitution?"
"'Now, the president may be right in how he reads the Constitution,' Jaworski said. 'But he may also be wrong. And if he is wrong, who is there to tell him so? And if there is no one, the president, of course, is free to pursue his course of erroneous interpretations. What then becomes of our constitutional form of government?'"
The defense argued that executive privilege was absolute, but the prosecution said it was not and that any confidentiality that was extended to the president had to yield to the needs of the legal system in a criminal case. If the president were given absolute executive privilege, Jaworski said, it would be an unchecked power that could subvert the rule of law.
St. Clair argued that, under the doctrine of the separation of powers, the case shouldn't be heard in the courts at all because it involved a dispute within the executive branch of the government. He also contended, as I have said, that the president deserved absolute executive privilege and should not be forced to turn over his tapes.
Jaworski took issue with St. Clair's assertion about the matter being an internal dispute within the executive branch. "Jaworski cited the assurances of [Al] Haig, [Robert] Bork and Attorney General William B. Saxbe… as to his indisputable right to take the president to court on the question of executive privilege," wrote Woodward and Bernstein. "It was up to the court, he said, to decide who was right, on the merits."
The justices retired to review the facts of the case – and, 16 days later, they handed down a judgment that would influence the course of history.