Landmark Cases – Separation of Powers

Separation of Powers: United States vs. Nixon (1974)

During the Watergate scandal, the special prosecutor and those indicted sought to subpoena taped conversations of President Richard Nixon from 1971 onward, but citing executive privilege the president claimed immunity from the subpoena(United States v. Nixon, 1974). In instances where national security is of interest or where there is a need to preserve communications of confidential nature within the executive branch, executive privilege provides the presidency and the executive branch of government with the right to withhold information from other government branches. Instead of relinquishing the White House tapes, President Nixon sought Presidential immunity on the basis of confidentiality and separation of powers, a move that the Court saw as an unconstitutional power play and rejected his plea unanimously.Besides, rejecting the assertion of President Nixon’s unqualified executive privilege, the Court ordered the release of the Watergate tapes, which ultimately toppled Nixon’s presidency. Soon after the ruling, impeachment proceedings were initiated by the House and President Nixon resigned two weeks after the ruling.

In this case, the Supreme Court, through their decision established that executive privilege is neither qualified nor absolute, and decided 8-0 against Nixon(United States v. Nixon, 1974). An unqualified Presidential immunity from the judicial process in Nixon’s case could be sustained by neither the need for confidentiality nor the separation of powers. Executive privilege cannot be used by a President to withhold evidence from a criminal trial. According to the Supreme Court, the due process of law in administering criminal justice fairly has fundamental demands that cannot be overridden by the President’s privilege(United States v. Nixon, 1974). The fact that there existed a specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial that could not compromise national security disqualified the generalized assertion of privilege. This case was important as it set precedent in limiting the power wielded by any President of the United States, sending the message that the President is not above the law.

Although the constitution has provided for the separation of powers, this provision does not accord absolute power to the president, to withhold information from the other branches of the government. Particularly, in circumstances where evidence is required in a criminal proceeding invoking executive privilege to deny the Court access to evidence is unconstitutional, and such a dispute can and should be heard in a federal court. This is in line with the primary constitutional duty of the judicial branch, which is mandated to administer justice in criminal prosecution. The separation of powers would thus be inapplicable in this scenario.

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