Supreme Court Rules Trump Cannot Block Release of Financial Records
Posted July 9, 2020 7:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2020 7:58 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for prosecutors in New York to seek President Donald Trump’s financial records in a stunning defeat for Trump and a major statement on the scope and limits of presidential power.
The decision in the case said Trump had no absolute right to block release of the papers and would take its place with landmark rulings that required President Richard M. Nixon to turn over tapes of Oval Office conversations and that forced President Bill Clinton to provide evidence in a sexual harassment suit.
“No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. He added that Trump might still raise objections to the scope and relevance of the subpoena requesting the records.
In a separate decision, the court ruled that Congress could not, at least for now, see many of the same records. It said the case should be returned to lower courts to examine whether Congress should narrow the parameters of the information it sought, meaning that the practical effect of the two decisions is that the records will not be made public before the election this fall.
The chief justice wrote the majority opinions in both cases, and both were decided by 7-2 votes. The court’s four-member liberal wing voted with him, as did Trump’s two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented in both cases.
Trump immediately attacked the outcome on Twitter. “This is all a political prosecution,” he wrote. “I won the Mueller Witch Hunt, and others, and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
Roberts implicitly addressed that question in his opinion. There were “200 years of precedent establishing that presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process, even when the president is under investigation,” he said.
Kavanaugh put it another way: “In our system of government, as this court has often stated, no one is above the law. That principle applies, of course, to a president.”
Trump had asked the court to block both sets of subpoenas, which had sought information from his accountants and bankers, not from Trump himself. The firms have indicated that they would comply with the courts’ ultimate rulings. Trump’s lawyers had argued that he was immune from all criminal proceedings and investigations so long as he remained in office and that Congress was powerless to obtain his records because it had no legislative need for them.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, portrayed the decisions as at least a temporary victory.
“We are pleased that in the decisions issued today, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked both Congress and New York prosecutors from obtaining the president’s tax records,” he said in a statement. “We will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”
Sekulow was right that the Supreme Court left open the possibility that Trump could make new objections to the New York subpoena. But the majority rejected the argument the president had made in the Supreme Court: that he was categorically immune from being having his records subpoenaed by state prosecutors.
The majority also rejected the Justice Department’s more limited argument that state prosecutors must satisfy a demanding standard when they seek information concerning a sitting president.
The New York case concerned a subpoena to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, from the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a Democrat. It sought eight years of business and personal tax records in connection with an investigation of the role that Trump and the Trump Organization played in hush-money payments made in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Vance expressed satisfaction with the ruling. “This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one — not even a president — is above the law,” he said in a statement. “Our investigation, which was delayed for almost a year by this lawsuit, will resume, guided as always by the grand jury’s solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead.”
Both Trump and his company reimbursed Michael D. Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, for payments made to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, who claimed that she had an affair with Trump.
Cohen was also involved in payments to Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who had also claimed she had a relationship with Trump. The president has denied the relationships.
Trump sued to stop the accounting firm from turning over the records, but lower courts ruled against him. In a unanimous ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, said state prosecutors may require third parties to turn over a sitting president’s financial records for use in a grand jury investigation.
The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling.
Roberts drew on history to demonstrate that sitting presidents have been forced to provide information in criminal proceedings, starting with a subpoena to Thomas Jefferson in Aaron Burr’s 1807 trial for treason. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the president could be subpoenaed.
“In the two centuries since the Burr trial,” Roberts wrote, “successive presidents have accepted Marshall’s ruling that the chief executive is subject to subpoena.”
And in the Nixon and Clinton cases, the chief justice wrote, the court relied on Marshall’s ruling.
Roberts wrote that it was of no moment that the earlier subpoenas were federal, while the one seeking Trump’s documents came from a state prosecutor.
He rejected three of the president’s arguments: that such subpoenas would distract him from his duties, that he would be stigmatized, and that he would be subject to harassment from elected prosecutors around the nation.
There was little reason to think that a subpoena for records held by third parties would impose a significant burden on a president, the chief justice wrote. There is nothing “inherently stigmatizing,” he added, about furnishing information relevant to a criminal investigation.
As for harassment, he wrote that the court had rejected a similar argument in the Clinton case, and that state and federal courts could address bad-faith investigations.
“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our court established that no citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Roberts wrote. “We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the president is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the chief justice’s majority opinion in the case, Trump v. Vance, No. 19-635.
Kavanaugh, joined by Gorsuch, voted with the majority but did not adopt its reasoning. Kavanaugh agreed that the president was not absolutely immune from having his records subpoenaed but said lower courts should require prosecutors to show a “demonstrated, specific need” for the information they sought. In dissent, Thomas also rejected the absolute immunity argument but said lower courts should give great weight to the possibility that the subpoena would prove distracting.
“The demands on the president’s time and the importance of his tasks are extraordinary, and the office of the president cannot be delegated to subordinates,” Thomas wrote. “A subpoena imposes both demands on the president’s limited time and a mental burden, even when the president is not directly engaged in complying. This understanding of the presidency should guide courts in deciding whether to enforce a subpoena for the president’s documents.”
In a separate dissent, Alito wrote that the majority had stripped Trump of his most important defenses.
“The point is that we should not treat this subpoena like an ordinary grand jury subpoena and should not relegate a president to the meager defenses that are available when an ordinary grand jury subpoena is challenged,” Alito wrote. “But that, at bottom, is the effect of the court’s decision.”
The subpoenas from congressional committees sought information from Trump’s accountants and two financial institutions — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — about hush-money payments, about whether Trump inflated and deflated descriptions of his assets on financial statements and about an array of financial records related to the president, his companies and his family.
Daniel Hunter, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said it would comply with the courts’ ultimate rulings.
“Deutsche Bank has demonstrated full respect for the U.S. legal process and remained neutral throughout these proceedings,” he said in a statement. “We will of course abide by a final decision by the courts.”
Mazars USA issued a similar statement.
In the decision on congressional subpoenas, Trump v. Mazars USA, No. 19-715, Roberts stressed the novelty of the question before the court. Earlier disputes between Congress and the president, he wrote, had been worked out by accommodation rather than litigation.
He wrote that the House had acknowledged “essentially no limits on the congressional power to subpoena the president’s personal records.”
Under the House’s theory, he wrote, “Congress could declare open season on the president’s information held by schools, archives, internet service providers, email clients and financial institutions.”
Roberts said lower courts should assess whether the records were truly needed by performing “a careful analysis that takes adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the unique position of the president.” The six justices who voted with the chief justice in the New York case joined his opinion on the congressional subpoenas.
In dissent, Thomas wrote that “it is readily apparent that the committees have no constitutional authority to subpoena private, nonofficial documents.” The House can seek information from the president only in connection with impeachment proceedings, he wrote.
In a separate dissent, Alito wrote that he would insist that the committees explain how the information sought relates to their legislative responsibilities.
The two cases tested the independence of the Supreme Court, which is dominated by Republican appointees, including two named by Trump. In earlier Supreme Court cases in which presidents sought to avoid providing evidence, the rulings did not break along partisan lines.
To the contrary, the court was unanimous in ruling against Nixon and Clinton, with their appointees voting against the presidents who had placed them on the court. The Nixon case led to his resignation in the face of mounting calls for his impeachment. The Clinton case led to Clinton’s impeachment, though he survived a Senate vote on his removal.
Trump’s appointees, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, also voted against the president who had placed them on the court, allying themselves with the chief justice and the court’s four-member liberal wing rather than its two most conservative members in the case on the New York subpoena. In the process, they repudiated a president who prizes loyalty and sent an unmistakable message about judicial independence.