Case Topics: Watergate, Checks and Balances

". . . Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the . . . [absolute] confidentiality of presidential communications." — Chief Justice Warren Burger

A congressional hearing about President Nixon’s Watergate break-in scandal revealed that he had installed a tape-recording device in the Oval Office. The special prosecutor in charge of the case wanted access to these taped discussions to help prove that President Nixon and his aides had abused their power and broken the law. President Nixon’s incomplete compliance with the special prosecutor's demands was challenged and eventually taken to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court decided that executive privilege is not limitless, and the tapes were released.

About the materials

These materials were developed for students of various skill levels, and teachers should choose the level that works best for their students. Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab under each case.

Background summary and questions to consider (by reading level)

Important vocabulary (by reading level)

Legal Concepts

  • Federalism
  • Seperation of Powers & Checks and Balances
  • National Supremacy

Other useful background information


The Case

After the Case

* See the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab for access to answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities

Teaching Strategies Used

Planning time and activities

If you have one day . . .

If you have two days . . .

If you have three days . . .

  • Complete the activities for the first and second days.

  • On the third day, have students complete Through the Years: Comparing Impeachments in U.S. History, which is divided into Parts I and II. Part I deals with the impeachment process itself and Part II addresses specific historical examples. If you are short on time or if your students have difficulty with the concepts, have students only complete Part I.

  • Alternatively, have students examine the issues of executive privilege that were raised in the case of Clinton v. Jones in President Clinton: The President as Defendant.

If you have four days . . .

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