Nixon Loses 1980 Lawsuit Seeking Payment for Papers
Former President Richard M. Nixon has lost his lawsuit demanding that the government pay him for the White House papers it seized after he resigned. A federal judge says that the papers belong to the people and to history.
“The presidential papers are unique” and difficult to compare with other types of property, U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn ruled Friday. “To argue that these materials were the sole property of the President . . . simply is without merit.”
The judge dismissed a 1980 lawsuit in which Nixon sought payment from the government for his presidential papers, which he contended were illegally taken from him under a law enacted months after he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
The National Archives holds 42 million pages of documents and 4,000 hours of recordings from the Nixon presidency. They are kept in a warehouse in Alexandria, Va., where they are available to researchers.
Nixon “does not have legal title to the materials in question, and . . . only held those materials as a trustee for the American people,” Penn wrote.
Many presidents, dating back to George Washington, treated their presidential papers as their own property, the judge said. Modern presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Gerald R. Ford, gave their papers to the government with the express condition that the former presidents themselves had the power to decide which documents were to be given.
However, Penn wrote, the modern presidents appeared to recognize that, “if they had ‘legal title’ to the presidential papers, it was title in the nature of a trustee holding those papers in trust for the American people and for history.”
Nixon’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., which opened in July, 1990, houses his non-presidential papers and mementos, plus copies of some of the presidential documents.
When Nixon resigned, he took personal papers from his office, whereas his presidential papers remained in Washington. That December, Congress enacted the law that Nixon contends took illegal control of the papers.
During a hearing on the case in 1987, Nixon’s lawyer said the former President was being deprived of private property rights that other chief executives always have exercised over their files.