Thursday, July 24, 2014
Supreme Court: The President Is Not Above the Law
For two weeks in the summer of 1974, the eight Supreme Court justices who were deciding on United States v. Nixon had been reviewing the details of the case and considering the lawyers' arguments.
The justices answered that question 40 years ago today.
And while the Supreme Court considered the matter, all kinds of things were happening in the Watergate case.
The day after the justices heard arguments, the House Judiciary Committee released its own versions of transcripts of eight conversations that had been released earlier by the White House. When the White House transcripts were compared to the Judiciary Committee's transcripts, it was clear that several long Watergate–related passages had been omitted in the White House version.
A week later, Nixon refused to comply with the House Judiciary Committee's last four subpoenas. In an interview that day, he called Watergate "the broadest but thinnest scandal in American history."
The day before that, the White House had furnished some John Ehrlichman notes to the Judiciary Committee, portions of which were blacked out. A few days later, Nixon attorney James St. Clair assured the committee that the deletions had been made by mistake, but the public relations damage had clearly been done.
The Judiciary Committee also made public five volumes of evidence that challenged the White House's argument that national security was the reason for the wiretaps. Without identifying which ones, Vice President Gerald Ford said he had listened to portions of two of the tapes and had reached the conclusion that it was "very understandable" that different interpretations could be made of words that were spoken on them.
Volume upon volume of evidence was released to the public, and both the majority and minority counsels on the Judiciary Committee urged a Senate trial on one or more of five impeachment charges: (1) obstruction of justice, (2) abuse of power, (3) contempt of Congress, (4) failure to adhere to the pledge to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" and (5) denigration of the presidency through underpayment of income taxes and use of federal money for personal purposes.
In California, the president's press secretary said the majority counsel, John Doar, was running a "kangaroo court."
The minority counsel, Albert Jenner, was replaced a couple of days later — after saying the case for impeachment was persuasive.
A couple of days before the Supreme Court announced its ruling, St. Clair declined to say whether Nixon would comply if the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes.
The next day, House Judiciary Committee member Lawrence Hogan, a Republican from Maryland, announced he would vote for impeachment. Hogan had already decided not to seek re–election to the House and was instead seeking the governorship of his state.
Forty years ago today, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski told the Baltimore Sun that he was "appalled" by the White House's refusal to say whether it would obey a Supreme Court order to turn over the tapes.
And such an order was handed down later that day.
By an 8–0 vote, the justices ruled that Nixon had to turn over the records of 64 Watergate–related conversations. They acknowledged that there was a constitutional basis for executive privilege but said that, when such a claim 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 justice."
"In careful but clear language," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "the Court ordered the president to turn over the tapes."
St. Clair, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, had been certain he would win the case. "He was shattered that he had lost. When he read the decision, it became clear to him that the tapes would have to go to [presiding Judge John] Sirica.
"'The president is not above the law. Nor does he contend that he is,' St. Clair had told the court. He hoped that the president understood what that meant. Nixon had never told him exactly what he would do if there were an adverse decision, but St. Clair knew that his own legal advice to the president had to be unqualified compliance.
"When St. Clair arrived at the residence, he told the president ... that he advised full compliance. The president was not convinced. He wondered if, in fact, to preserve the power of his office, he didn't have a constitutional duty to reject the court order."
Of Nixon's defenders, historian Theodore White wrote, "they were like German officers on the firing line in 1918 who knew long before the Kaiser that the time for surrender had come."
The president eventually agreed to a kind of compliance. He told St. Clair that he would need to time to review the tapes before turning them over — weeks, perhaps months. St. Clair wasn't sure he could arrange that. Jaworski was eager to get the tapes for use in the upcoming coverup trial.
Nixon also informed lawyer Fred Buzhardt that "there might be a problem with the June 23 tape."