Subpoenas and the Executive Branch

Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post, captioned “Deju Vu. The 1974 NIXON Subpoena”;  Click here for my earlier post. This post today is merely to restate one of the most interesting, unanswered constitutional law questions that has remained in the forefront of my mind all these years after my earlier days at Emory Law School.

This is not a political blog post, but it does center on how a President can, or might, respond to subpoenas.  Here is this question’s relationship to the 1974 Nixon subpoena.

In short, in 1974 special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, while conducting the Nixon Watergate investigation, obtained a subpoena ordering President Nixon to release certain tapes and papers as to meetings between Nixon and others who had been indicted by a grand jury. Nixon refused. The US Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, concluded Nixon could not rely on executive privilege as immunity from complying with the subpoena. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes in response to the subpoena. Nixon ultimately agreed to comply with the subpoena.

Here is the constitutional question we discussed (and that hooked me all these years) in my constitutional law school class in response to the Nixon Supreme Court opinion. That is, how would Jaworski’s subpoena have been enforced if Nixon had snubbed the Supreme Court and taken the position he did not have to comply with the subpoena?

Because Nixon’s own executive branch was (and is) the only enforcement branch of government, what would have happened if Nixon did not allow his executive branch to enforce the subpoena? Remember, the judicial and legislative branches have no enforcement capability. Also, you and I would likely be jailed quickly by the executive branch for our failure to comply with a court order.  [Nixon ended up voluntarily complying with the subpoena, without anyone having to deal with its enforcement.]

So, would the military have stepped in to enforce the Nixon subpoena?  Would we have seen military tanks in front of the White House?  Would there be an attempted coup? Would there be vigilante enforcement, etc.? We simply have no answer.

The point of this blog post is to remind each of us of, and elevate, the sanctity and design of our US three-branch system of government. In my view, especially as a lawyer, this three-branch system is the only reason we have been able to maintain our breadth of freedoms and rights against the historical backdrop of disputes, crises, disagreements, differing political and social views, and so forth.

The crucial question, at present, of another potential subpoena stand-off should not focus only on the substance or information of what the subpoena is seeking, but rather on how does the subpoena and its compliance fit with the need of continuing the essential and crucial balance of our three-system government? My imponderable constitutional question still remains unanswered and untested. Let’s keep it that way.

 

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