The chief judge of U.S. District Court yesterday ordered Richard M. Nixon to turn over transcripts of more than 100 taped conservations sought in connection with lawsuits filed by protesters arrested during a massive May Day rally at the Capitol in 1971.
The tapes, subpoenaed five years ago, cover the former president's conversations involving the May Day demonstrations, particularly with then attorney general John Mitchell, said Warren Kaplan, an attorney for the demonstrators.
Mitchell is one of the last remaining defendants in the civil damage suit brought by the protesters, who contend that their constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly were violated when they were arrested on May 5, 1971.
Kaplan said yesterday that attorneys for the protesters intend to go ahead with the long-delayed suit against Mitchell once the tapes are received. a
"This is hopefully the culmination of a five-year struggle to find out what's on those tapes," Kaplan said in a telephone interview.
Nixon's attorney, R. Tan Mortenson, said yesterday, however, that he will take Chief Judge William B. Bryant's decision to the u.S. Court of Appeals this week. Mortenson said he intends to ask that court to postpone enforcement of Bryant's order until the decision can be reviewed by the appeals court.
Bryant ruled in November 1978 that material covered by the subpoena should be turned over unless Nixon demonstrated a valid claim that certain conversations were priviledged, and thus protected from disclosure.
The courts have decided that such a claim of privilege must be supported with references to specific segments of conversations and enough description so that the court can recognize the basis for the claim, Bryant said.
Nixon, however, simply submitted a single page summary for each of 133 conversations, covering more than 759 pages of transcript, Bryant said. On the bottom of most of those pages, scripts on claims of irrelevancy or presidential privilege or privacy, Bryant said.
The results is that "Mr. Nixon's present claim of privilege amounts to a blanket statement that almost every conversation is privileged in all respects on all grounds," Bryant said, which the courts have already rejected.
Bryant's ruling yesterday was another chapter in the still-lingering litigation that had its origins on the east steps of the Capitol in 1971, in the days when Washington was filled with anti-Vietnam War protests.
More than 1,200 persons were arrested on May 5, 1971, as Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) was finishing an address to the crowd. In a 1975 class action lawsuit a jury awarded each of the arrested protesters $7,500. Last December, Bryant, acting after the U.S. Court of Appeals, said the awards were too high and ruled that each protester would get $750.
Then-attorney general Mitchell was a party to the suit in 1975, Kaplan said, but he was also involved in Watergate-related criminal trails at the time. As a result, Bryant agreed to separate the complaint against Mitchell from the main May Day case.