The Role Chief Justice Roberts Will Play in the Impeachment

On this day in 1974, President Nixon flatly refuses to produce any of the more than 500 documents subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate committee, branding the request “an overt attempt to intrude into the executive office to a degree that constitutes an unconstitutional usurpation of power.”

Nixon’s refusal to supply recordings of his conversations and other materials came in a letter addressed to the committee chairman, Sen. Sam J. Ervin, Jr. (D-NC). The letter was delivered to the committee on Capitol Hill by White House congressional liaison staff members that afternoon, three hours after the deadline set by the committee to hand over the documents and recordings; in this writer’s profession that’s called a purposeful tweak.

The tapes’ existence came to light during the Watergate scandal of 1973-74, when the recording system was mentioned during the televised testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield before the Senate Watergate Committee. After Nixon’s first refusal, at the request of special counsel Leon Jaworski, Federal District Judge John Sirica issued a subsequent subpoena for the tapes of 64 presidential conversations to use as evidence in the criminal cases against indicted former Nixon administration officials.

Nixon refused, and Jaworski appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to force Nixon to turn over the tapes; the following July 24, the SCOTUS unanimously ordered the ill-fated President to release the tapes.

The 8–0 ruling in United States v. Nixon found that President Nixon was blatantly, painfully, legally incorrect in arguing that courts are compelled to honor, without question, any presidential claim of executive privilege. Nixon’s refusal of a congressional and other subpoenas to release the tapes eventually constituted an article of impeachment against Nixon, and led to his subsequent resignation on August 9, 1974.

Is any of this ringing any recently heard bells? If so, is is certainly possible a similar ruling from Chief Justice John Roberts, whilst presiding over Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, is in the offing. Tactically, in howling over a hurry-up to get to the Senate, Trump and Co. may have circumvented their trump cards, by rushing right past the SCOTUS, and Justice Beach Week. Rulings on witnesses and admissibility may therefore be in the hands of Roberts, who, despite some country club proclivities, is keenly aware that the world, and history, are watching.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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