The Supreme Court
Dethroning a President
Ironically President Nixon, who so much wanted to remake the Court in his own image, was forced to resign because of a landmark decision of the Supreme Court. Even Chief Justice Burger ended up siding against him in the unanimous decision of the United States v. Nixon in 1974. Rehnquist did not participate in that decision (he recused himself).
You probably remember that Nixon was reelected to office in 1972 after a landslide defeat of Democrat George McGovern. Dirty tricks played by Nixon's reelection committee ultimately destroyed his presidency. On June 17, 1972 burglars broke into the Democratic Party campaign headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The actual break-in was given little notice by the press until The Washington Post investigative team led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein found links to top government officials.
The Nixon administration repeatedly denied any connection to the burglary, but information connecting the administration started to dribble out. Woodward and Bernstein found a secret informant they called “Deep Throat” to help expose the Nixon administration.
The Congress and the public pressured Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor. During the special prosecutor's investigation, it was learned that Nixon secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office. On March 1974, a federal grand jury indicted seven Nixon associates for conspiracy and named President Nixon an unindicted co-conspirator. At the same hearing the prosecutor asked for a subpoena so he could hear those tapes because he believed they were relevant to the criminal investigation. Nixon turned over edited transcripts of some of tapes, but refused to turn over the tapes asserting the right of executive privilege.
The district court denied the claim for executive privilege and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. The court needed to decide two critical issues:
Executive privilege is claim not mentioned in the Constitution, but one that presidents invoke on the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Presidents believe that this privilege permits them to resist requests for information by the Congressional and judicial branches.
Some thought Nixon would not comply, but within eight hours of the Supreme Court ruling on July 24, 1974, Nixon said he would turn over the tapes. Transcripts of 64 tape recordings were released on August 5 and damaging information was found on the tapes that linked the White House to the Watergate cover-up and the fact that Nixon was involved in that cover-up as early as June 23, 1972. Three days later, after it was clear he had lost all Congressional support, Nixon announced his resignation before he could be impeached.
In deciding the case, the Supreme Court did state that the president has limited executive privilege in areas of military or diplomatic affairs, but found that due process in criminal law took precedence over that privilege. Here's a brief quote from that decision read by Chief Justice Burger:
The Court's decision and the nation's first presidential resignation certainly sent shockwaves through the country. There is no question its impact is still felt to some extent politically today, but another controversial case from the Burger Court has created even more political divisions that continue to divide the country today—Roe v. Wade.