United States v. Zolin Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Internal Revenue Service (“I.R.S.”) was investigating the tax returns of L. Ron Hubbard (“Mr. Hubbard”), and sought various materials from the Church of Scientology (the “Church”) in the possession of a District Court. The Church sought continued protection of the documents based on the attorney client privilege, and the IRS claimed they should be given access to the tapes because they fell under the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege.

Facts of the case


Whether a district court, at the request of the party opposing the privilege, may review the allegedly privileged communications in-camera, to determine if the crime-fraud exception applies?


Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) delivered the opinion of the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) and held that in-camera review of allegedly privileged attorney-client communications may be used to determine whether the communications fall within the crime-fraud exception, in appropriate circumstances.
The party requesting in camera review must present evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that such review may reveal evidence that establishes the exception’s applicability. After this threshold determination is met, the decision rests in the sound discretion of the court.


Judgment requiring petitioner to use independent evidence to show materials subject to summons fell within the crime-fraud exception of the attorney-client privilege was vacated because an in camera inspection, by a district court, of materials sought by petitioner could have been used to determine whether the exception applied, after petitioner made a showing sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the in camera review would be useful. The court held protection of attorney-client communications ceased to operate where the desired advice related to a future wrongdoing. The court further held that in camera review could be used to determine whether allegedly privileged attorney-client communications fell within the crime-fraud exception. Before a district court engaged in in camera review at the request of a party opposing the privilege, that party had to present evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that in camera review would have yielded evidence that established the exception’s applicability. The threshold showing to obtain in camera review could be met by using any relevant evidence, lawfully obtained, that had not been adjudicated to be privileged. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings.

  • Case Brief: 1989
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: Zolin
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 491 US 554 (1989)
Argued: Mar 20, 1989
Decided: Jun 21, 1989