Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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What If...? and Principles of Democracy

What If...?

Directions

Working with a partner, answer the following questions. Be prepared to explain your answers or opinions to others.

  1. Imagine what society would be like if government officials could break laws and face no consequences.

    • How might this affect the way government officials behave? 
    • How might this affect the way people think about their government and their laws? 
    • Can you think of a principle of democracy that prevents this from happening? 
  2. Imagine that every time you needed advice from people you trust, they thought their advice would be blasted to the world on a social networking site or through e-mail or text messages.

    • How might this affect what you ask them or what they tell you? How might this situation affect your decision?
    • If you were a president, how might your advisors react if they thought everything they talked to you about could be made public? 
    • Should there be rules to protect the secrecy of conversations between government officials and their advisors? Why or why not?

Principles of Democracy

Directions

The United States was set up and operates under democratic principles. These principles include citizen participation, government accountability, equality, free and fair elections, limited government power, etc.

Sometimes, principles of democracy are in conflict with each other. For example, if most people want to pass a law that discriminates against a smaller group of people, should the government reflect the will of the majority of people or protect the basic rights of the minority?

  1. Working with a partner, read about the principles below and answer the questions that follow.
  2. Look back at the exercise called “What If….” and match the principles here with the scenarios there.
Rule of Law

In countries that are not democratic, leaders make the rules and use those rules to control the people and the country. Rules and decisions can be arbitrary and unpredictable and leaders often do not follow the rules themselves.

In democratic countries, the power of government is limited and rests in the institutions or laws – not in leaders themselves. Laws are applied fairly and equally to everyone. No one is above the law or can ignore the law – not even the highest leaders. This idea is known as the rule of law.

What do you think is the link between the rule of law and democracy? Explain your answer.

Executive Privilege

Sometimes, presidents want to be able to keep their conversations with their advisors private. They call this executive privilege. They might worry that if information from those conversations were public, it could threaten the security of the country. Presidents might also want to keep their conversations private because they want their advisors to give honest advice, without worrying about being criticized by other people, especially people in the other branches of government. Presidents might say that making good decisions and being a good president requires them to keep certain information private.

Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Clinton, George W. Bush and, most famously, Nixon all claimed executive privilege when they attempted to withhold information requested by the judiciary or the Congress.

The Constitution does not specifically mention executive privilege as a right of presidents, but at times, the courts have recognized (and allowed) this privilege because it falls under the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. Other times, president have lost their claims of executive privilege and had to turn over information requested by the courts or Congress because the constitutional principle of checks and balances says that each branch of government has the ability to restrain the power of the others in certain ways.

How is it the notion of executive privilege supported by the principle of separation of powers? How does it conflict with the principle of checks and balances?

As you read about the case of U.S. v. Nixon, think about how these principles might apply to the case.
< United States v. Nixon