The case was decided 8 to 0. Justice Rehnquist did not participate. Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court.
[W]e turn to the claim that the subpoena should be quashed because it
demands "confidential conversations between and President and his close
advisors that it would be inconsistent with the public interest to
produce" . . . The first contention is a broad claim that the separation
of powers doctrine precludes judicial review of a President's claim of
privilege. The second contention is that if he does not prevail on the
claim of absolute privilege, the court should hold as a matter of
constitutional law that the privilege prevails over the subpoena. . . .
In the performance of assigned constitutional duties each branch of
the Government must initially interpret the Constitution, and the
interpretation of its powers by any branch is due great respect from the
others. The President's counsel as we have noted, reads the
Constitution as providing an absolute privilege of confidentiality for
all Presidential communications. Many decisions of this Court, however,
have unequivocally reaffirmed the holding of Marbury v. Madison . . . that "it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."
Since this Court has consistently exercised the power to construe and
delineate claims arising under express powers, it must follow that the
Court has the authority to interpret claims with respect to powers
alleged to derive from enumerated powers.
In support of his claim of absolute privilege, the President's
counsel urges two grounds, one of which is common to all governments and
one of which is peculiar to our system of separation of powers. The
first ground is the valid need for protection of communications between
high government officials and those who advise and assist them in the
performance of their manifold duties; the importance of this
confidentiality is too plain to require further discussion.
The second ground asserted by the President's counsel in support of
the claim of absolute privilege rests on the doctrine of separation of
powers. . . . Here it is argued that the independence of the Executive
Branch within its own sphere . . . insulates a president from a judicial
subpoena in an ongoing criminal prosecution, and thereby protects
confidential presidential communications.
However, neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need
for confidentiality of high level communications, without more, can
sustain an absolute, unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from
judicial process under all circumstances. The President's need for
complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference
from the courts. However, when the privilege depends solely on the
broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality
of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a
claim of need to protect military, diplomatic or sensitive national
security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even
the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential
communications is significantly diminished by production of such
material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obliged to provide.
The impediment that an absolute, unqualified privilege would place in
the way of the primary constitutional duty of the Judicial Branch to do
justice in criminal prosecutions would plainly conflict with the
function of the courts under Art. III.
Since we conclude that the legitimate needs of the judicial process
may outweigh Presidential privilege, it is necessary to resolve those
competing interests in a manner that preserves the essential functions
of each branch.
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.
But this presumptive privilege must be considered in light of our
historic commitment to the rule of law. . . . We have elected to employ
an adversary system of criminal justice in which the parties contest all
issues before a court of law. The need to develop all relevant facts in
the adversary system is both fundamental and comprehensive. The ends of
criminal justice would be defeated if judgments were to be founded on a
partial or speculative presentation of the facts. The very integrity of
the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full
disclosure of all the facts, within the framework of the rules of
In this case we must weigh the importance of the general privilege of
confidentiality of Presidential communications in performance of the
President's responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on
the fair administration of criminal 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. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to
the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal
Questions to Consider
What does the Supreme Court of the United States say about President
Nixon's contention that the courts have no jurisdiction in this case?
What was the power of the courts established by the case of Marbury v. Madison cited in this case?
Does the Court question the need for confidential communications between the president and his advisors?
The Court claims that the president's confidential communications
must be balanced against, or considered in light of, other values. With
what values, in this case, must the president's confidentiality be
balanced? According to the Court, which values take precedence in this
If the Supreme Court of the United States had allowed President
Nixon to keep the tapes private, Chief Justice Burger claimed that "the
very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the
system" was at risk. Do you agree with Chief Justice Burger? Explain
In the case of United States v. Burr (1807), Chief
Justice John Marshall stated that "[I]n no case of this kind would a
court be required to proceed against the president as against an
ordinary individual." Has the Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon proceeded against the president as an ordinary individual? Why or why not?
Should the president be treated as an ordinary individual? Why or why not?