Contested White House tapes and papers still tied up in courts

April 24, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As Richard M. Nixon lived on after leaving the presidency, the legal wrangle over his White House tapes and papers lingered on as sequels to the Watergate scandal. The courts still have not reached the end of the dispute, and may not for several years.

Just last week, in fact, Mr. Nixon's lawyers filed a new plea in federal court here, asking a judge to force the government to give back "forthwith" the White House tape recordings that have only personal material on them.

As of now, the former president and the Nixon Library do not have even one of the original 789 reels of tape recordings, even though the Supreme Court has made clear that many that are personal in nature should have been given back, according to his lawyer, Herbert J. Miller Jr.

Mr. Miller also noted that the former president's paper files -- some 42 million documents -- still are tied up in a separate legal case, and in the meantime remain with the National Archives even though a federal appeals court ruled 17 months ago that those papers are all his personal property.

"The whole thing is an absolute disgrace," the attorney commented.

Mr. Nixon himself has complained about the long legal struggle, remarking in a 1990 interview: "I have spent more than $1.8 million in attorneys' fees."

Twice, the Supreme Court has been drawn into the fight over Mr. Nixon's White House records. In 1974, in a decision that helped bring down his presidency, the court ruled that he had to turn over tapes and papers demanded by the prosecutor investigating Watergate crimes. Three years later, the court upheld the constitutionality of a 1974 act of Congress that ordered a federal takeover of all his presidential files.

In late 1992, however, the federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the documents seized from Mr. Nixon actually were his personal property.

Although the former president had access to those papers, for such uses as writing memoirs, they are in government custody under the 1974 law. The takeover, the appeals court ruled, was a form of seizure of personal property, and the government must pay compensation for seizing the papers. Since that ruling, a federal judge in Washington has been weighing suggestions on how to measure the amount of compensation.

Mr. Nixon, his lawyer noted, has said that any money paid for the White House tapes and papers will be contributed to the Nixon Library. But, Mr. Miller added, "We'll have to get it first."

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