While president, Nixon sought to appoint justices who would dismantle the expansion of individual liberties established by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. During the Watergate crisis, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that he must turn over secret White House tape recordings led inexorably to Nixon’s resignation.
Raised in a Quaker household in Southern California, Nixon was a hardworking student who earned a scholarship to Duke University Law School in 1934. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1941-1945), Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and the U.S. Senate in 1950. In 1952 he was nominated for vice president on the Republican ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon was narrowly defeated in his first bid for the presidency in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and, two years later, lost an attempt at the California governorship. However, in 1968, he returned to win a close victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election.
Nixon was reelected in 1972 by a landslide. However, in June, 1972, Republican operatives were arrested breaking into Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate
Nixon promised to appoint justices to the Court who would be strict constructionists, conservative in their views, and, when possible, from the South. His nominees all came under careful scrutiny; several were sharply criticized and two rejected.
He fared well with his first choice, naming Warren E. Burger
Nixon angrily denounced the Senate as being unwilling to confirm a southerner, however qualified, and announced his next nominee, Harry A. Blackmun
In September, 1971, when Hugo L. Black and John M. Harlan II left the Court, Nixon floated a list of potential nominees so lacking in judicial excellence or even competence that it was quickly withdrawn. Instead, Nixon nominated Lewis F. Powell, Jr.
Nixon had been incensed by the Court’s 6-3 decision in New York Times Co. v. United States
In June, 1972, a team of burglars was arrested at the Democratic Party National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel complex. As the story unfolded during the next two years, it became increasingly clear that the break-in and subsequent coverup had definite links to the White House, perhaps even to the president. During testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, a Nixon aide confirmed the existence of a secret White House taping system. Possession of those tapes became the critical issue in the entire affair, and the Nixon administration refused to release them, citing executive privilege.
When the case reached the Court, Nixon hoped investigators’ demands for the tapes would be denied. However, although the Court accepted the argument of executive privilege
The July 24, 1974, ruling took place while the House Judiciary Committee was discussing proposed articles of impeachment. On July 27, 1974, the Committee approved the first article of impeachment, that of obstructing justice. On July 29, it approved the second article of impeachment, abuse of power. On August 9, 1974, aware that he faced inevitable impeachment by the House of Representatives and probably conviction by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency.
Nixon had sought to remake the Court to reflect his own conservative values. Two of his appointees had been rejected as patently unqualified. The other four, including Burger, who became chief justice, disappointed Nixon by adhering to the moderate rulings that had marked the Court under Warren. Ironically, in the end, it was a ruling of a Supreme Court largely appointed by Nixon himself that ended his presidency.
Abraham, Henry J. Justices and Presidents. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Emery, Fred. Watergate: The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994. Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Blackmun, Harry A.
Burger, Warren E.
Carswell, G. Harrold
Congressional power of investigation
Haynsworth, Clement, Jr.
Impeachment of presidents
Nominations to the Court
Powell, Lewis F., Jr.
Rehnquist, William H.