“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, speaking for the majority

This case explores the legal concepts of executive privilege, federalism, and separation of powers/checks and balances.

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 claimed executive privilege and refused to hand over the tapes. 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.



This section is for students. Use the links below to download classroom-ready .PDFs of case resources and activities. 


About the Case

Full Case Summaries

A thorough summary of case facts, issues, relevant constitutional provisions/statutes/precedents, arguments for each side, decision, and case impact.

Case Background and Vocabulary

Important background information and related vocabulary terms.

Visuals

Decision

Learning Activities

The Case

After the Case

This section is for teachers.

Use the links below to access:

  • student versions of the activities in .PDF and Word formats
  • how to differentiate and adapt the materials
  • how to scaffold the activities
  • how to extend the activities
  • technology suggestions
  • answers to select activities  

About the Case


Learning Activities

The Case

 

After the Case


Teacher Resources

Teaching Strategies Used

Landmark Cases Glossary

The LandmarkCases.org glossary compiles all of the important vocab terms from case materials. It is provided as a view-only Google Sheet.

Glossary

Planning Time and Activities

If you have one day . . .

  • Read the background summary (•••, ••, •) and answer the questions.
  • Complete the Classifying Arguments Activity. Discuss which arguments the students find most convincing.
  • In advanced classes, complete the Oral Argument Analysis(•••) activity.
  • For homework, have students read the Key Excerpts from the Opinion and answer the questions. Follow-up the next day by reviewing the questions with students.

If you have two days . . .

  • Complete the activities for the first day (excluding homework).
  • On the second day, complete the Cartoon Analysis activity
  • Complete the Principles of Democracy activity
  • For homework, have students read the Key Excerpts from the Opinion and answer the questions. Follow-up the next day by reviewing the questions with students.

If you have three days . . .

  • Complete the activities for the first and second days (including homework).
  • On the third day, have students complete the Should it be Protected? activity.
  • Complete Nixon’s Views on Presidential Power.
  • For homework, have students complete Comparing Impeachments in U.S. History

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete the activities for the first, second, and third days (excluding homework from the third day).
  • On the fourth day, have students complete President Clinton: The President as Defendant
  • Complete Comparing Impeachments in U.S. History
  • For homework, have students learn more about the effect of the Watergate scandal on legal ethics using The Legacy of Watergate: Rethinking Legal Ethics.
Return to Case Listing