Regardless of one’s choice in this 2016 presidential election, last night’s debate took me back to my days at Emory Law School in Atlanta. In my first-year constitutional law course. The U.S. Supreme Court opinion in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).
I include some more details at the end of this post about this Nixon case. But, essentially it dealt with President Richard Nixon’s objection to complying with a subpoena for his release of information during the Watergate investigation.
This case made a lasting impression on me in that first-year law school class. I have thought about it many times over the years in response to U.S. and world news, particularly involving political conflict. I thought about it again last night.
The key point that struck me many years ago is the question our constitutional law professor raised.
That is, “What would have happened to the balance of our three-branch democratic government if President Nixon had disregarded the federal District Court order that he turn over the information subject to the subpoena?”
Keep in mind the subpoena had been served on Nixon by his own executive branch. The U.S. District Court is the judicial branch.
We will never know this answer. To the tremendous (constitutional) benefit of our country, Nixon chose to comply with the federal court order and turn over the subpoenaed information.
Here is some more background information about this Nixon case. In short, in 1974 federal special prosecutor Leon Jaworski obtained a subpoena from the Justice Department ordering President Richard Nixon to turn over certain tapes related to the Watergate investigation. Nixon was still in office at this time. Nixon objected and asked the U.S. District Court in D.C. to quash the subpoena.
As an interesting aside, the news media at that time reported that President Nixon’s attorney, in arguing to the District Court against against the subpoena, stated:
“The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.”
[excerpt from Trachtman, Michael G. (2007). The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 34 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life. Sterling. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-4027-4107-4.]