Nixon v. Administrator of General Services

PETITIONER:Richard M. Nixon
RESPONDENT:Administrator of General Services
LOCATION:United States General Services Administration Building

DOCKET NO.: 75-1605
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)

CITATION: 433 US 425 (1977)
ARGUED: Apr 20, 1977
DECIDED: Jun 28, 1977
GRANTED: Nov 29, 1976

Herbert J. Miller, Jr. – for appellant
Nathan Lewin – for appellant
Robert E. Herzstein – for appellees
Wade H. McCree, Jr. – for appellees

Facts of the case

Richard M. Nixon resigned as President of the United States on August 9, 1974, leaving in government custody approximately 42 million pages of documents, 880 reels of tape recordings of conversations, and other materials. Soon after, Nixon executed a depository agreement with the Administrator of General Services Administration providing for the storage of these materials near Nixon’s California home; this agreement also specified that certain of the materials would be destroyed at Nixon’s discretion.

Shortly after this agreement was publicized, the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act became law. The act directed the Administrator to take custody of Nixon’s presidential materials, assign government archivists to screen materials for items that were personal or private in nature, preserve materials with historical value, and make materials available for use in judicial proceedings. The act also directed the Administrator to promulgate regulations allowing eventual public access to the materials.

The day after President Ford signed the act into law, Nixon challenged its constitutionality in district court, claiming that it violated 1) the principle of separation of powers, 2) Nixon’s presidential privilege, 3) Nixon’s privacy interests, 4) Nixon’s First Amendment associational rights, and 5) the bill of attainder clause. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of the act. The district court dismissed Nixon’s compliant, holding that his constitutional challenges were without merit.


1. Was the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act unconstitutional on its face as a violation of the separation of powers?

2. Was the act unconstitutional on its face as a violation of presidential privilege doctrines?

3. Was the act unconstitutional on its face as a violation of Nixon’s privacy interests?

4. Was the act unconstitutional on its face as a violation of Nixon’s First Amendment right to free association?

5. Was the act unconstitutional on its face as a violation of the Bill of Attainder Clause?

Media for Nixon v. Administrator of General Services

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 20, 1977 in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 28, 1977 in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in 75-1605, Nixon against the Administrator of General Services Administration will be announced by Mr. Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

This case, from a three-judge District Court for the District of Columbia, presents the question of facial constitutionality for the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974.

That Act directs the Administrator of General Services to take custody of some 42 million Presidential papers and some 880 tape recordings of the appellant, former President Richard M. Nixon and promulgate regulations that first provide for the orderly processing and screening by Executive Branch archivist of such materials and returned to appellant of those that are personal and private in nature, and second, that provide the terms and conditions upon which public access may eventually be had to those materials that are retained subject in each case to any rights, defenses or privileges that the Federal Government or any person including appellant may invoke.

Now, it’s important to emphasize the timeframe in which Congress enacted this Act.

Appellant resigned as President on August 9, 1974, two weeks after the House Judiciary Committee had voted to recommend his impeachment.

Just one month after his resignation on September 8, 1974, today, incidentally that President Ford pardoned the appellant, then Administrator of General Services, Arthur F. Sampson announced that he had signed a depository agreement with appellant providing for the disposition of appellant’s Presidential papers and the tape recordings.

That agreement provided for the deposited materials that a storage faculty near appellant’s California home, access to which was limited to the appellant and an archivist of the United States.

Appellant, however, reserves the right to withdraw or direct the destruction of any of the materials after three years except that in the case of tape recordings, the period was after five years.

But the agreement further provided that after 10 years or upon appellant’s death, whichever first occurred, the tapes would be immediately destroyed.

Congress passed the Act as emergency legislation deemed and necessitated by the extraordinary events that led to the resignation and pardon, and particularly necessitated by the possibility of the destruction of the tape recordings and other materials pursuant to the Nixon-Sampson agreement.

The bill, which became this law, and was expressly passed to abrogate the Nixon-Sampson agreement, was introduced by 13 Senators on September 18, only 10 days after the pardon and the announcement of the agreement.

Congress passed and sent the Bill to President Ford on December 9, and President Ford signed in the law on December 19.

The very next day, December 20th, before the Administrator had any opportunity to prepare the regulations required for administration of the Act, regulations incidentally subject to veto by one House of Congress insofar as they governed future public access to the materials.

Appellant filed this suit on the District Court, challenging the Act’s constitutionality because the regulations governing public access were not yet affected.

The District Court held that questions going to the possibility of future public release under regulations yet to be published were not right for review.

Accordingly, the District Court rendered review to appellant’s claims as they were pertinent to the facial validity of the provisions of the Act requiring the Administrator to take the papers and tape recordings into his custody for screening by the Government archivist.

We too, therefore, similarly limit our consideration of the merits.

Now, the constitutional questions to be decided are of course of considerable importance.

They touch the relationship between two of the three coordinate branches of the National Government, the Executive and the Legislative, and the relationship of appellant to his Government and the Act applies in terms specifically to appellant by name.

Thus, the questions arise in a context unique in the history of the Presidency and present issues that the Court has had no occasion heretofore to address.

There are other laws that deal more generally with Presidential papers.

For example, the Public Documents Act which is Title II of this very same law contemplates legislation governing the papers of future Presidents.

It establishes the National Study Commission on records and documents of federal officials to study and recommend appropriate legislation regarding the preservation of the papers of future Presidents indeed of all federal officials.

And the Presidential papers of all former Presidents, from President Hoover to President Johnson are already housed and functioning Presidential libraries subject to the Presidential Libraries Act.

In the context, therefore, the focus of the Act upon appellant alone can we hold to be fairly and rationally understood.

For at the time of the passage of the Act, only appellant’s materials demanded immediate congressional attention.

In short, we hold that appellant constituted a legitimate class of one, thus, providing a constitutional basis for Congress’ decision to proceed with this batch with respect to his materials while accepting the status of his predecessor’s papers and ordering the further consideration of generalized standards to govern the papers of his successors.

It’s in this light that appellant’s constitutional claims must be considered.

The claims, five in number argue, (1) that the Act violates the principle of separation of powers encroaching upon Presidential prerogative to control internal operations of the Office of the President, (2) that the Act violates the Presidential privilege of confidentiality, (3) that the Act unconstitutionally invades appellant’s right of privacy, (4) that the Act significantly interferes with or chills, appellant’s First Amendment of sociational rights, and (5) and finally, that the Act violates the Bill of Attainder Clause.

The District Court comprehensively canvassed all these claims and a through opinion concluded that none had merit.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The District Court, therefore, dismissed the complaint.

We affirmed, since our independent examination of the claims, we attest also to the conclusion that none has merit.

The opinion of the Court has seven parts, each joined by five or more justices.

Mr. Justice White, Mr. Justice Blackmun and Mr. Justice Powell have filed opinions joining various but not always the same parts and concurring otherwise in the judgment.

Mr. Justice Stevens, while joining the Court’s opinion has also filed a concurring opinion.

The Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Rehnquist’s dissent and each has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Brennan.