Presidents have more than once had occasion to stand in a protective relation to their subordinates, assuming their defense in litigation brought against them 1 or pressing litigation in their behalf, 2 refusing a congressional call for papers which might be used, in their absence from the seat of government, to their disadvantage, 3 challenging the constitutional validity of legislation deemed detrimental to their interests. 4 Presidents throughout our history have attempted to spread their own official immunity to their subordinates by resisting actions of the courts or of congressional committees to require subordinates to divulge communications from or to the President that Presidents choose to regard as confidential. Only recently, however, has the focus of the controversy shifted from protection of presidential or executive interests to protection of the President himself, and the locus of the dispute shifted to the courts.
Following years in which claims of executive privilege were resolved in primarily interbranch disputes on the basis of the political strengths of the parties, the issue finally became subject to judicial elaboration. The doctrine of executive privilege was at once recognized as existing and having a constitutional foundation while at the same time it was definitely bounded in its assertion by the principle of judicial review. Because of these cases, because of the intensified congressional-presidential dispute, and especially because of the introduction of the issue into an impeachment proceeding, a somewhat lengthy treatment of the doctrine is called for.
Conceptually, the doctrine of executive privilege may well reflect different considerations in different factual situations. Congress may seek information within the possession of the President, either in effectuation of its investigatory powers to oversee the conduct of officials of the Executive Branch or in effectuation of its power to impeach the President, Vice President, or civil officers of the Government. Private parties may seek information in the possession of the President either in civil litigation with the Government or in a criminal proceeding brought by government prosecutors. Generally, the categories of executive privilege have been the same whether it is Congress or a private individual seeking the information, but it is possible that the congressional assertion of need may over-balance the presidential claim to a greater degree than that of a private individual. The judicial precedents are so meager that it is not yet possible so to state, however.
The doctrine of executive privilege defines the authority of the President to withhold documents or information in his possession or in the possession of the executive branch from compulsory process of the legislative or judicial branch of the government. The Constitution does not expressly confer upon the Executive Branch any such privilege, but it has been claimed that the privilege derives from the constitutional provision of separation of powers and from a necessary and proper concept respecting the carrying out of the duties of the presidency imposed by the Constitution. Historically, assertion of the doctrine has been largely confined to the areas of foreign relations, military affairs, pending investigations, and intragovernmental discussions. 5 During the Nixon Administration, the litigation involved, of course, the claim of confidentiality of conversations between the President and his aides.
Private Access to Government Information
Private parties may seek to obtain information from the government either to assist in defense to criminal charges brought by the government or in civil cases to use in either a plaintiff’s or defendant’s capacity in suits with the government or between private parties. 6 In criminal cases, a defendant is guaranteed compulsory process to obtain witnesses by the Sixth Amendment and by the due process clause is guaranteed access to relevant exculpatory information in the possession of the prosecution. 7 Generally speaking, when the prosecution is confronted with a judicial order to turn over to a defendant information that it does not wish to make available, the prosecution has the option of dropping the prosecution and thus avoiding disclosure. 8 But that alternative may not always be available; in the Watergate prosecution, only by revoking the authority of the Special Prosecutor and bringing the cases back into the confines of the Department of Justice could this possibility have been realized. 9
In civil cases the government may invoke the state secrets privilege against revealing military or other secrets. In United States v. Reynolds, 10 a tort claim brought against the United States for compensation for the deaths of civilians in the crash of an Air Force plane testing secret electronics equipment, plaintiffs sought discovery of the Air Force’s investigation report on the accident, and the government resisted on a claim of privilege as to the nondisclosure of military secrets. The Court accepted the Government’s claim, holding that courts must determine whether under the circumstances the claim of privilege was appropriate without going so far as to force disclosure of the thing the privilege is designed to protect. The private litigant's showing of necessity for the information should govern in each case how far the trial court should probe. Where the necessity is strong, the court should require a strong showing of the appropriateness of the privilege claim, but once the court is satisfied of the appropriateness the privilege must prevail no matter how compelling the need. 11
Reynolds dealt with an evidentiary privilege. There are other circumstances, however, in which cases must be
dismissed on the pleadings without ever reaching the question of evidence. 12 In holding that federal courts should refuse to entertain a breach of contract action seeking enforcement of an agreement to compensate someone who performed espionage services during the Civil War, the Court in Totten v. United States declared that
public policy forbids the maintenance of any suit in a court of justice, the trial of which would inevitably lead to the disclosure of matters which the law itself regards as confidential. 13
Prosecutorial and Grand Jury Access to Presidential Documents
Rarely will there be situations when federal prosecutors or grand juries seek information under the control of the President, since he has ultimate direction of federal prosecuting agencies, but the Watergate Special Prosecutor, being in a unique legal situation, was held able to take the President to court to enforce subpoenas for tape recordings of presidential conversations and other documents relating to the commission of criminal actions. 14 While holding that the subpoenas were valid and should be obeyed, the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional status of executive privilege, insofar as the assertion of that privilege relates to presidential conversations and indirectly to other areas as well.
Presidential communications, the Court said, have
a presumptive privilege.
The privilege is fundamental to the operation of government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution. The operation of government is furthered by the protection accorded communications between high government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their duties.
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. The separation of powers basis derives from the conferral upon each of the branches of the Federal Government of powers to be exercised by each of them in great measure independent of the other branches. The confidentiality of presidential conversations flows then from the effectuation of enumerated powers. 15
However, the Court continued, the privilege is not absolute. The federal courts have the power to construe and delineate claims arising under express and implied powers. Deference is owed the constitutional decisions of the other branches, but it is the function of the courts to exercise the judicial power,
to say what the law is. The Judicial Branch has the obligation to do justice in criminal prosecutions, which involves the employment of an adversary system of criminal justice in which all the probative facts, save those clearly privileged, are to be made available. Thus, although the President’s claim of privilege is entitled to deference, the courts must balance two sets of interests when the claim depends solely on a broad, undifferentiated claim of confidentiality.
In this case we must weigh the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of presidential communications in performance of his responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice. The interest in preserving confidentiality is weighty indeed and entitled to great respect. However we cannot conclude that advisers will be moved to temper the candor of their remarks by the infrequent occasions of disclosure because of the possibility that such conversations will be called for in the context of a criminal prosecution.
On the other hand, the allowance of the privilege to withhold evidence that is demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial would cut deeply into the guarantee of due process of law and gravely impair the basic function of the courts. A President’s acknowledged need for confidentiality in the communications of his office is general in nature, whereas the constitutional need for production of relevant evidence in a criminal proceeding is specific and central to the fair adjudication of a particular criminal case in the administration of 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. 16
Obviously, United States v. Nixon left much unresolved. It did recognize the constitutional status of executive privilege as a doctrine. It did affirm the power of the courts to resolve disputes over claims of the privilege. But it left unsettled just how much power the courts have to review claims of privilege to protect what are claimed to be military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets. It did not indicate what the status of the claim of confidentiality of conversations is when it is raised in civil cases, nor did it touch upon denial of information to Congress, or public disclosure of information.
The Court’s decision in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services 17 did not elucidate any of these questions to any great degree. In upholding the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which directed the government to take custody of former President Nixon’s records so that they could be screened, catalogued, and processed by professional archivists in GSA, the Court viewed the assertion of privilege as directed only to the facial validity of the requirement of screening by executive branch professionals, and not at all related to the possible public disclosure of some of the records. The decision did recognize
adequate justifications for enactment of the law, and termed them cumulatively
comparable to those held to justify in camera inspection in United States v. Nixon. 18 Congress’s purposes cited by the Court included the preservation of the materials for legitimate historical and governmental purposes, the rationalization of preservation and access to public needs as well as each President’s wishes, the preservation of the materials as a source for facilitating a full airing of the events leading to the former President’s resignation for public and congressional understanding, and preservation for the light shed upon issues in civil or criminal litigation. Although interestingly instructive, the decision may be so attuned to the narrow factual circumstances that led to the Act’s passage as to leave the case of little precedential value.
Public disclosure was at issue in 2004 when the Court weighed a claim of executive privilege asserted as a bar to discovery orders for information disclosing the identities of individuals who served on an energy task force chaired by the Vice President. 19 Although the case was remanded on narrow technical grounds, the Court distinguished United States v. Nixon, 20 and, in instructing the appeals court on how to proceed, emphasized the importance of confidentiality for advice tendered the President. 21
Congressional Access to Executive Branch Information
Presidents and Congresses have engaged in protracted disputes over provision of information from the former to the latter, but the basic thing to know is that most congressional requests for information are complied with. The disputes, however, have been colorful and varied. 22 The basic premise of the concept of executive privilege, as it is applied to resist requests for information from Congress as from private parties with or without the assistance of the courts, is found in the doctrine of separation of powers, the prerogative of each coequal branch to operate within its own sphere independent of control or direction of the other branches. In this context, the President then asserts that phase of the claim of privilege relevant to the moment, such as confidentiality of communications, protection of diplomatic and military secrets, or preservation of investigative records. Counterposed against this assertion of presidential privilege is the power of Congress to obtain information upon which to legislate, to oversee the carrying out of its legislation, to check and root out corruption and wrongdoing in the Executive Branch, involving both the legislating and appropriating function of Congress, and in the final analysis to impeach the President, the Vice President, and all civil officers of the Federal Government.
Until quite recently, all disputes between the President and Congress with regard to requests for information were settled in the political arena, with the result that few if any lasting precedents were created and only disputed claims were left to future argument. The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, however, elected to seek a declaratory judgment in the courts with respect to the President’s obligations to obey its subpoenas. The Committee lost its case, but the courts based their rulings upon prudential considerations rather than upon questions of basic power, inasmuch as by the time the case was considered impeachment proceedings were pending in the House of Representatives. 23 The House Judiciary Committee subpoenas were similarly rejected by the President, but instead of going to the courts for enforcement, the Committee adopted as one of its Articles of Impeachment the refusal of the President to honor its subpoenas. 24 Congress has considered bills by which Congress would authorize congressional committees to go to court to enforce their subpoenas; the bills did not purport to define executive privilege, although some indicate a standard by which the federal court is to determine whether the material sought is lawfully being withheld from Congress. 25 The controversy gives little indication at the present time of abating, and it may be assumed that whenever the Executive and Congress are controlled by different political parties there will be persistent conflicts. One may similarly assume that the alteration of this situation would only reduce but not remove the disagreements.