WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that state prosecutors in New York can subpoena years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The decision is a blow to Trump, who argued that as president he should be completely immune from a grand jury subpoena, and the Justice Department, which didn’t embrace Trump’s immunity argument but pushed for a higher standard for state prosecutors to meet before they could get the president’s records.
Thursday’s decision does not mean the public will get to see Trump’s tax returns, however. By law, documents subpoenaed as part of grand jury investigations are secret, though they could later become public if used as evidence in trial. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, first as a candidate and later as president.
The majority decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who was joined by the justices from the court’s liberal arm. Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s two nominees to the court, agreed that Trump was not absolutely immune from the subpoena.
Thursday’s decision does not mean the public will get to see Trump’s tax returns, however. By law, documents subpoenaed as part of grand jury investigations are secret. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, first as a candidate and later as president.
In a separate decision also released on Thursday, the court revived a fight between Trump and House Democrats over congressional subpoenas for Trump’s financial records — a majority of the court ruled that the lower courts, which had sided with the congressional committees, failed to fully consider the separation of powers issues at play, and kicked the cases back down for more proceedings.
Although the court didn’t rule out the possibility that the committees could win in the end, it’s still something of a victory for Trump because it at least delays the issue. Democrats have been trying to get his financial records for more than a year.
Roberts also wrote the 7-2 opinion in the congressional subpoenas case, joined by the court’s liberal wing again as well as Kavanaugh and Gorsuch.
Trump slammed both decisions, tweeting: “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” Responding to the decision in the grand jury subpoena case, he tweeted that it was “all a political prosecution” and that it was “not fair” that he had “to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York.”
The justices heard arguments by telephone in May in a trio of lawsuits that Trump filed trying to shield his tax returns and other financial records. Two of the cases involved subpoenas issued by House Democrats, and the third involved a grand jury subpoena issued as part of a criminal investigation by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
The subpoenas were sent to financial institutions that held Trump’s records — accounting firm Mazars USA LLC, Deutsche Bank, and Capital One — but the companies declined to take a position, leaving it up to their client, Trump, to duke it out in court with lawmakers and Vance’s office. Trump repeatedly lost in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court paused rulings that would have forced Mazars and the banks to turn over records when the justices agreed to hear the case in December.
During arguments before the Supreme Court, Trump’s lawyer tried to distinguish his situation from cases that Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon ultimately lost when they went before the court to fight efforts to probe their affairs. The Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that a grand jury could subpoena tapes that Nixon recorded of conversations in the White House, rejecting his immunity argument. Two decades later, the court ruled in 1997 that Clinton was not immune from facing a civil lawsuit in state court related to issues that predated his presidency.
In the New York district attorney’s case, Trump’s personal attorneys argued that he should be protected by absolute immunity from any criminal investigation while he’s in office. The grand jury had subpoenaed eight years of Trump’s tax returns as part of an investigation by Vance’s office into Trump’s role in hush money payments made to two women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who claimed to have had affairs with Trump before he took office.
The Justice Department, which has backed Trump but didn’t push the absolute immunity argument, instead argued that the court should require state prosecutors who want to subpoena information about a president to first go to court and meet a high standard for proving they had a special need to do so.
In the congressional subpoena cases, Trump argued that the Democrat-led committees lacked legislative authority to investigate him and demand his records. House Democrats argued that their authority to issue subpoenas was “extremely broad” and that they didn’t have to articulate up front exactly what legislation they were considering in order to carry out an investigation.
Three Democrat-led House committees subpoenaed financial institutions for Trump’s records, and each offered its own reasons for doing so. The Committee on Oversight and Reform said it wanted to explore whether Trump committed crimes before taking office, whether he had undisclosed conflicts of interest, whether he was complying with a constitutional prohibition against accepting financial benefits (known as the Emoluments Clauses), and whether he’d complied with financial disclosure rules.
The Committee on Financial Services indicated it was interested in probing how US regulators enforced anti-money laundering laws, and the subpoenas would shed light on what Democrats characterized as “questionable” financing provided by banks to Trump and his company. And the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said it wanted Trump’s records as part of a broader investigation into Russian influence in US political systems, and specifically whether foreign actors had leverage over Trump, his campaign, his businesses, or his family members.
Two federal appeals courts — the DC Circuit and the 2nd Circuit — ruled in favor of House Democrats.
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