A federal court in Washington, D.C., on Friday ordered the unsealing of the transcript of former President Richard Nixon's 1975 grand jury testimony related to the Watergate investigation, subject to the "review procedures" of the federal agency in possession of the records.
"The special circumstances presented here — namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records — far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records," said Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington. "The Court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy."
Lamberth issued his order in response to a petition submitted on behalf of historical groups and scholars seeking the release of the transcript of Nixon's 1975 testimony and associated materials of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. The government opposed the petition, arguing that releasing the material would violate the federal court rule on grand jury secrecy.
Lamberth's opinion acknowledged that grand jury material is generally secret. "But the rule of grand jury secrecy is not without exceptions," Lamberth said. The federal rule on grand jury secrecy itself lists a handful of exceptions, and Lamberth reasoned that a "courts’ ability to order the disclosure of grand jury records has never been confined" to those "enumerated exceptions."
Lamberth concluded that courts also had the authority to order the release of grand jury records for reasons other than those specified by the federal rules in "exceptional circumstances." Determining whether such "exceptional circumstances" exist requires a fact-intensive analysis of the specifics of each case, Lamberth said, adopting the multi-factor analysis used by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.).
Analysis of these factors, ranging from the timing and purpose of the disclosure to the specific information sought to be released, "properly balances any special circumstances justifying disclosure against the need to maintain grand jury secrecy," the court said.
Emphasizing the historical importance of the specific records at issue here, Lamberth ruled that the factors weighed in favor of disclosure.
"To be sure, Watergate’s significance in American history cannot be overstated. Nearly forty years later, Watergate continues to capture both scholarly and public interest. The disclosure of President Nixon’s grand jury testimony would likely enhance the existing historical record, foster further scholarly discussion, and improve the public’s understanding of a significant historical event," Lamberth said.
The passage of time also lessened the important secrecy and privacy interests at stake, Lamberth said. And, by conditioning the release on an agency review of the records for privacy, the remaining privacy concerns were also addressed, Lamberth said.
Lamberth limited his order to the release of Nixon's testimony and related records. In a separate order filed on the same day, Lamberth rejected a broader request to release all Watergate grand jury-related records, as well as other related congressional and trial materials. Lamberth ruled that the broad request for grand jury records did not meet the special exception to grand jury secrecy and that a decision to release congressional records should be left to Congress. The request to unseal trial materials lacked sufficient information to allow the court to weigh the competing interests in such a request, Lamberth said.