Updated 2:34 p.m.
A federal trial judge today ordered the public release of former President Richard Nixon's grand jury testimony rooted in the Watergate investigation.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against the U.S. Justice Department, which fought to keep the material secret to maintain the privacy of witnesses.
“Nearly forty years later, Watergate continues to capture both scholarly and public interest,” the judge said. “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 privacy interest implicated in the release of the Nixon transcripts is minimal. Many Watergate principals who are likely identified in the papers, the judge said, are now dead. “[T]he Court rejects the government’s argument that thirty-six-year-old records are too ‘young’ for disclosure,” Lamberth wrote.
The judge said the “undisputed historical interest in the requested records” outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the documents.
Lamberth said he “is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy.”
The transcript will not be released immediately because the government has the opportunity to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review the decision.
A Justice Department spokesman, Charles Miller, said the department is reviewing the ruling. Miller declined to comment further.
The petitioners, American history and legal scholars, filed suit in Washington federal district court last year to obtain the testimony Nixon gave in June 1975 following his resignation and pardon.
Allison Zieve, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which represented the plaintiffs, heralded today's ruling. Zieve said the records will be "fascinating whether they say everything or nothing at all."
"This is quite a strong opinion," Zieve said. "I'm hoping that the government decides to let it stand. This really is an extraordinary case."