The Supreme Court on Thursday delivered split opinions in two cases over whether President Donald Trump can shield his tax records from investigators, handing a win to the Manhattan district attorney but rejecting parallel efforts by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Both cases were decided 7-2, with Chief Justice John Roberts authoring the court’s opinion and joined in the majority by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented in both cases.
Both cases are subject to further review by lower courts. The justices rejected the president’s claims that he was immune from state criminal subpoenas in the New York case. In the congressional case, they wiped away rulings in favor of House Democrats, ordering lower courts to more carefully consider concerns about the separation of powers.
The mixed rulings mean the American public is unlikely to learn about Trump’s financial records or tax information before November’s election.
The decisions mark the first time that the nation’s highest court has directly ruled on a matter involving Trump’s personal dealings. Trump has been more secretive with his finances than any president in decades, refusing to release his tax records to the public even as he mounts a bid for reelection.
The cases were decided on the final day of the Supreme Court’s term, which began last October and was extended past its typical end-of-June conclusion as a result of precautions taken against the spreading coronavirus.
“In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence.’ Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States,” Roberts wrote in the New York case.
The New York case stemmed from an investigation being pursued by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. Vance issued a subpoena to Trump’s longtime accounting firm, Mazars, for a wide variety of Trump’s personal and business records, including tax returns, dating back to 2011.
Vance’s office is investigating the hush money payments that Trump allegedly facilitated to two women ahead of the 2016 election, though the purpose for his subpoenas is relatively opaque.
The women have claimed to have had sexual relationships with the president that he has denied. Vance hasn’t said whether Trump is a suspect in his investigation, and he has not indicated any potential charges.
Trump’s attorneys have pushed for an expansive view of presidential immunity in the case.
In one lower court hearing in New York, an attorney for the president said that Trump would theoretically be immune from investigation even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
In a statement, Vance called Thursday’s decision “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.”
“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,” Vance said.
Jay Sekulow, an attorney for the president, said in a statement that “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 financial records.”
“We will now proceed to raise additional Constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts,” Sekulow said.
Despite Sekulow’s guarded optimism, it was clear from Trump’s response that the president did not see the rulings as victories.
“Now the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given for another President. This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT. We catch the other side SPYING on my campaign, the biggest political crime and scandal in U.S. history, and NOTHING HAPPENS. But despite this, I have done more than any President in history in first 3 1/2 years!” Trump wrote in a series of posts on Twitter. .
“Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” Trump added.
In his dissent, Alito wrote that the majority’s decision “threatens to impair the functioning of the Presidency and provides no real protection against the use of the subpoena power by the Nation’s 2,300+ local prosecutors.”
Thomas wrote in dissent that he agreed with the majority that presidents do not have absolute immunity from criminal subpoenas, but that he would have erased the lower court win for Vance and instructed the lower court to determine whether the subpoena should be blocked on the basis that it would interfere with Trump’s duties.
The congressional cases involved subpoenas issued by Democratic-led committees of the House of Representatives, which sought financial records from Mazars as well as his banks, Capital One and Deutsche Bank.
“This case is different,” Roberts wrote in the opinion handed down Thursday. “Here the President’s information is sought not by prosecutors or private parties in connection with a particular judicial proceeding, but by committees of Congress that have set forth broad legislative objectives.”
“Congress and the President—the two political branches established by the Constitution—have an ongoing relationship that the Framers intended to feature both rivalry and reciprocity,” Roberts wrote.
The House Oversight Committee sought out the information in connection with investigations into claims made by the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump inflated and deflated his assets to suit his needs.
The oversight panel is also investigating Trump’s failure to disclose a $130,000 hush money payment that he owed to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels on his 2017 disclosure form. The Office of Government Ethics has said that Trump should have listed the debt — which he owed to Cohen, for facilitating the payment — as a liability.
The financial services and intelligence committees issued two separate subpoenas to Deutsche Bank seeking information on the president and members of his family, including his children Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump. A third subpoena, from the financial services committee, asked Capital One for a wide variety of information on 15 Trump businesses.
The financial services committee is investigating potential foreign money laundering. Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has said his committee’s investigation entails uncovering whether “any foreign actor has sought to compromise or holds leverage, financial or otherwise, over Donald Trump, his family, his business, or his associates.”
Lower courts in New York and Washington upheld the subpoenas, but the president asked the justices to reverse those rulings.
The consolidated congressional cases are Trump v. Mazars, No. 19-715 and Trump v. Deutsche Bank, No. 19-760. The New York case is Trump v. Vance, No. 19-635.
— CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.
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