Rarely will there be situations when federal prosecutors or grand juries seek information under the control of the President, since he has ultimate direction of federal prosecuting agencies, but the Watergate Special Prosecutor, being in a unique legal situation, was held able to take the President to court to enforce subpoenas for tape recordings of presidential conversations and other documents relating to the commission of criminal actions.623 While holding that the subpoenas were valid and should be obeyed, the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional status of executive privilege, insofar as the assertion of that privilege relates to presidential conversations and indirectly to other areas as well.
Presidential communications, the Court said, have “a presumptive privilege.” “The privilege is fundamental to the operation of government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.” The operation of government is furthered by the protection accorded communications between high government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their duties. “A President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately.” The separation of powers basis derives from the conferral upon each of the branches of the Federal Government of powers to be exercised by each of them in great measure independent of the other branches. The confidentiality of presidential conversations flows then from the effectuation of enumerated powers.624
However, the Court continued, the privilege is not absolute. The federal courts have the power to construe and delineate claims arising under express and implied powers. Deference is owed the constitutional decisions of the other branches, but it is the function of the courts to exercise the judicial power, “to say what the law is.” The Judicial Branch has the obligation to do justice in criminal prosecutions, which involves the employment of an adversary system of criminal justice in which all the probative facts, save those clearly privileged, are to be made available. Thus, although the President’s claim of privilege is entitled to deference, the courts must balance two sets of interests when the claim depends solely on a broad, undifferentiated claim of confidentiality.
“In this case we must weigh the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of presidential communications in performance of his responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice. The interest in preserving confidentiality is weighty indeed and entitled to great respect. However we cannot conclude that advisers will be moved to temper the candor of their remarks by the infrequent occasions of disclosure because of the possibility that such conversations will be called for in the context of a criminal prosecution.”
“On the other hand, the allowance of the privilege to withhold evidence that is demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial would cut deeply into the guarantee of due process of law and gravely impair the basic function of the courts. A President’s acknowledged need for confidentiality in the communications of his office is general in nature, whereas the constitutional need for production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding is specific and central to the fair adjudication of a particular criminal case in the administration of justice. . . .”
“We conclude that when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.”625
Obviously, United States v. Nixon left much unresolved. It did recognize the constitutional status of executive privilege as a doctrine. It did affirm the power of the courts to resolve disputes over claims of the privilege. But it left unsettled just how much power the courts have to review claims of privilege to protect what are claimed to be military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets. It did not indicate what the status of the claim of confidentiality of conversations is when it is raised in civil cases, nor did it touch upon denial of information to Congress, or public disclosure of information.
The Court’s decision in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services626 did not elucidate any of these questions to any great degree. In upholding the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which directed the government to take custody of former President Nixon’s records so that they could be screened, catalogued, and processed by professional archivists in GSA, the Court viewed the assertion of privilege as directed only to the facial validity of the requirement of screening by executive branch professionals, and not at all related to the possible public disclosure of some of the records. The decision did recognize “adequate justifications” for enactment of the law, and termed them cumulatively “comparable” to those held to justify in camera inspection in United States v. Nixon.627 Congress’s purposes cited by the Court included the preservation of the materials for legitimate historical and governmental purposes, the rationalization of preservation and access to public needs as well as each President’s wishes, the preservation of the materials as a source for facilitating a full airing of the events leading to the former President’s resignation for public and congressional understanding, and preservation for the light shed upon issues in civil or criminal litigation. Although interestingly instructive, the decision may be so attuned to the narrow factual circumstances that led to the Act’s passage as to leave the case of little precedential value.
Public disclosure was at issue in 2004 when the Court weighed a claim of executive privilege asserted as a bar to discovery orders for information disclosing the identities of individuals who served on an energy task force chaired by the Vice President.628 Although the case was remanded on narrow technical grounds, the Court distinguished United States v. Nixon,629 and, in instructing the appeals court on how to proceed, emphasized the importance of confidentiality for advice tendered the President.630
- United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 692–97 (1974). [Back to text]
- 418 U.S. at 707–08. Presumably, the opinion recognizes a similar power in the federal courts to preserve the confidentiality of judicial deliberations, cf. New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 752 n.3 (1971) (Chief Justice Burger dissenting), and in each house of Congress to treat many of its papers and documents as privileged. Cf. Soucie v. David, 448 F.2d 1067, 1080, 1081–1982 (C.A.D.C. 1971) (Judge Wilkey concurring); Military Cold War Escalation and Speech Review Policies: Hearings Before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 87th Congress, 2d Sess. (1962), 512 (Senator Stennis). See Calley v. Callaway, 519 F.2d 184 (5th Cir. 1975) (en banc), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 911 (1976); United States v. Ehrlichman, 389 F. Supp. 95 (D.D.C. 1974). [Back to text]
- 418 U.S. 683, 711–13. Essentially the same decision had been arrived at in the context of subpoenas of tapes and documentary evidence for use before a grand jury in Nixon v. Sirica, 487 F.2d 700 (D.C. Cir. 1973). [Back to text]
- 433 U.S. 425, 446–55 (1977). See id. at 504, 545 (Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist dissenting). The decision does resolve one outstanding question: assertion of the privilege is not limited to incumbent Presidents. Id. at 447–49. Subsequently, a court held that former-President Nixon had had such a property expectancy in his papers that he was entitled to compensation for their seizure under the Act. Nixon v. United States, 978 F.2d 1269 (D.C. Cir. 1992). [Back to text]
- 433 U.S. at 452. [Back to text]
- Cheney v. United States District Court, 542 U.S. 367 (2004). [Back to text]
- Although the information sought in Nixon was important to “the constitutional need for production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding,” the suit against the Vice President was civil, and withholding the information “does not hamper another branch’s ability to perform its ‘essential functions.’ ” 542 U.S. at 383, 384. [Back to text]
- The Court recognized “the paramount necessity of protecting the Executive Branch from vexatious litigation that might distract it from the energetic performance of its constitutional duties.” 542 U.S. at 382. But cf. Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 702 (1997). [Back to text]