• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court’s ruling was key to causing President Richard M. Nixon to resign from office.

Chief Justice Warren E. BurgerBurger, Warren E.;Nixon, United States v.[Nixon, United States v.] wrote the unanimous opinion ordering the release of tapes possibly damaging to President Richard M. Nixon. Justice William H. Rehnquist declined to participate, saying he had been a former Justice Department official under Nixon, but the other Nixon appointees, Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell, Jr., as well as Burger, participated. As important as this decision was to Nixon, three of his own appointees ruled against him.Executive privilege;Nixon, United States v.[Nixon, United States v.]

A break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate hotel, shown beyond the roof of the Howard Johnson restaurant, led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon

(© Washington Post. Reprinted by permission of the D.C. Public Library)

In response to questions regarding the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters in the WatergateWatergate affair building, Nixon had contradicted his aides as to his level of involvement in the scandal. When it was revealed that Nixon routinely taped conversations in his office, the Watergate investigators used presidential appointment logs to isolate tapes that they wished to hear. Nixon refused to release the tapes, and the presumably independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox sued to force Nixon to produce them. Nixon fired Cox, but his own two top Justice Department officials resigned before he could force them to remove Cox from office. Newly appointed special prosecutor Leon Jaworski renewed the pursuit for the tapes, and the Supreme Court ruled that they must be released.

Included among the tapes was a conversation so damning that it has been called the “smoking gun” that led to Nixon’s resignation just three weeks later. In his opinion, Burger emphasized that the Court must be deferential to the presidency, but this ruling, by concluding that executive privilege was conditional, nonetheless limited the previous presumption that executive privilege was absolute.

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