Nixon, Richard M. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 WatergateWatergate affair Hotel complex in Washington, D.C. Despite attempts by the White House to cover up the incident, journalistic investigations and senatorial hearings, aided by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Nixon[case]Nixon, United States v.[Nixon, United States v.] (1974), finally forced Nixon to resign the presidency in August, 1974.

Appointments to the Court

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. BurgerBurger, Warren E. in May, 1969, to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren. However, Nixon immediately ran into controversy with his next selection, Clement Haynsworth, Jr.Haynsworth, Clement, Jr., a South Carolina native and chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. Senatorial hearings revealed that Haynsworth had serious conflict-of-interest problems, and the Senate rejected him, fifty-five to forty-five, on November 21, 1969. Stung, Nixon quickly named G. Harrold CarswellCarswell, G. Harrold of Florida, a former U.S. District Court judge with only six months experience on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District. In addition to being considered by many to be a mediocre judge, Carswell had made white supremacist statements while campaigning for office and thwarted integration of a public golf club in Florida. In April, 1970, he was also rejected by the Senate.

Nixon angrily denounced the Senate as being unwilling to confirm a southerner, however qualified, and announced his next nominee, Harry A. BlackmunBlackmun, Harry A. of Minnesota, then judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit. Blackmun was approved by the Senate on May 12, 1970, without a single dissenting vote.

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.Powell, Lewis F., Jr., of Virginia and William H. RehnquistRehnquist, William H. of Arizona, an assistant U.S. attorney general. Both Powell and Rehnquist were easily confirmed.

Nixon had been incensed by the Court’s 6-3 decision in New York Times Co. v. United States[case]New York Times Co. v. United States[New York Times Co. v. United States] (1971) to uphold the right of newspapers such as The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified documents that outlined the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. By the midpoint of his first term as president, Nixon had appointed four of nine justices, including the chief justice, and he expected his appointees to help reverse the rulings of the Warren Court. Instead, his ambitions were disappointed. In 1973 Justice Blackmun wrote the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which upheld legal abortions under the privacy rights of the U.S. Constitution.

Watergate and Resignation

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 privilegeExecutive privilege in theory, it rejected it in this specific case because the tapes were evidence required for the fair administration of criminal justice. The fact that the president of the United States was the defendant was irrelevant because not even the president could place himself above the law. The 8-0 ruling (Justice Rehnquist did not vote) was decisive and definitive. After only brief hesitation, the Nixon White House turned over the tapes.

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.Impeachment of presidents

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Executive privilege

Haynsworth, Clement, Jr.

Impeachment of presidents

Nominations to the Court

Powell, Lewis F., Jr.

Presidential powers

Rehnquist, William H.

Vietnam War

Categories: History Content