Background: In June 1972, five men broke into the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. They had cameras and bugging equipment and were arrested with cameras and bugging equipment in hand. Police soon discovered that the burglars worked for the Committee to Re-Elect the President. President Nixon and leaders of his campaign denied any connection with the incident. Among the five men arrested was E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a former Nixon aide, and G. Gordon Liddy, a lawyer for the Committee to Re-elect the President. Shortly afterward, the presiding judge received a letter from one of the convicted men. It spoke of payoffs to the burglars in return for their silence.
In 1973, a Senate select committee began an investigation in the case. They soon learned that top members of the Nixon administration were involved in a cover-up of the break-in and several other illegal actions. The investigation also discovered that Richard Nixon had installed a taping system that automatically recorded all of his conversations between Nixon and his advisers. A special prosecutor appointed to probe the Watergate scandal subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused to release them, claiming they were protected under executive privilege. Nixon eventually released some of the tapes, but portions of them had been erased. Finally, another special prosecutor asked the United States Supreme Court to force Nixon to release all the tapes untouched and unedited.
Historical Context: In the early 1970s there was a growing distrust in the national government. The Pentagon Papers exposed the intentional deception of the American people about Vietnam. The National Guard opened fire at a Kent State University protest following President Nixon’s authorization for the United States to attack Cambodia. Four students were killed from Kent State University. Nixon was attempting to cover up the illegal actions of him and his administration. Key Players: Richard Nixon was the most important key player since the case was against him. Nearly half of the Justices involved in prosecuting Nixon were appointed by him during his term of Presidency. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger was also appointed by Nixon and later wrote the unanimous opinion which stated Nixon must turn over the tapes. James D. St. Clair was Nixon’s counsel.
Archibald Cox was a key player in the beginning but Nixon later fired him and the appointed Leon Jaworski as the new special prosecutor in the case. Jaworski then issued the subpoena which ordered Nixon to turn the tapes over. Chief Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for Washington D.C. approved the subpoena. Associate Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee, recused himself as he had a prior association with the Nixon administration. Court’s Decision: On March 1, 1974, a grand jury indicted U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell and six other people, all senior Nixon administration officials or members of the Committee to Re-elect the President. They were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up White House involvement in the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex.
Nixon was named as a co-conspirator but was not indicted. Nixon was subpoenaed to turn over the tapes but denied the request and stated that he had executive privilege and was exempt to any court’s rulings except that of impeachment Later the court’s unanimous 8-0 ruling established that the president is not immune from judicial process and must turn over evidence subpoenaed by the courts. The doctrine of executive privilege entitles the president to a high degree of confidentiality from the courts if the evidence involves matters of national security or other sensitive information, but the president cannot withhold evidence involving non-sensitive information when needed for a criminal investigation. The Supreme Court decided that the executive privilege claimed by the President was not absolute. Burger ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes to Chief Judge John Sirica for inspection. Nixon issued a statement that he would obey the Court’s order.
He turned over sixty-four tapes to Sirica. Portions of the tapes revealed the president himself had clearly been involved in attempts to cover-up White House involvement in the Watergate burglary. One tape produced the voice of Nixon directing the CIA to stop the FBI investigation of the burglary. This was a clear obstruction of justice. Realizing Congress was ready to impeach him and his presidency doomed, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. My Ruling: I would have ruled with the court in that Richard Nixon must turn over the tapes. No one is above the law and is not allowed to obstruct justice in any court case, especially that of a criminal case.
Even though Nixon was the President, he does not have divine right and is not exempt from a major court case where he tried to withhold information that was crucial in proving the involvement of the White House covering-up the Watergate break-in.