The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday by a 7-to-2 vote that U.S. President Donald Trump is not immune from a New York grand jury subpoena for his tax returns and other closely guarded financial records.
But in a separate case claimed as a victory by the White House, the high court put a stop to efforts by congressional Democrats to subpoena the president’s and his family’s business records, sending the dispute back to a lower court to resolve.
The landmark ruling in favor of the grand jury subpoena amounts to defeat for Trump, who for years has doggedly shielded his financial records from congressional and public scrutiny. Trump complained on Twitter that he was being treated differently than past presidents and that he was the victim of a “political prosecution” in New York.
But the White House cast both decisions in a positive light, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying in a statement that the court affirmed “the limited authority of Congress to conduct fact-checking through subpoenas” while protecting “the President’s financial records from intrusive subpoenas from a partisan district attorney” in the New York grand jury subpoena dispute.
The latter ruling is consistent with similar opinions issued by the court against former presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1997. Nixon was forced to turn over tape recordings of his private conversations to a special prosecutor and Clinton was compelled to testify in a sexual harassment case.
The ruling in favor of the grand jury subpoena doesn’t mean Trump will have to turn over his tax returns any time soon. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinions in both rulings, said that like any private citizen, Trump may still “challenge the subpoena on any grounds permitted by state law.” McEnany suggested that Trump’s lawyers will likely exercise that option.
Roberts and two Trump appointees on the court — Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — joined the majority in both decisions. The court’s two most conservative justices — Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — dissented.
The highly anticipated decisions came in three separate cases concerning subpoenas for Trump’s financial records.
The first two cases, consolidated under Trump vs. Mazars, involved subpoenas issued by three House committees to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, as well as to two lenders — Deutsche Bank and Bank One. The committees are investigating to determine whether Trump had inflated and deflated certain assets on his financial statements between 2011 and 2013 to reduce his real estate taxes and whether some Trump property deals involved money laundering.
The third case, known as Trump v. Vance, involves a subpoena issued to Mazars USA for Trump’s tax returns and other records by New York’s top prosecutor, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Vance is supervising a grand jury investigation of Trump prompted by revelations of hush money paid to two women — Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film actress known as Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — who said they had past sexual relationships with Trump.
While all three cases concerned Trump’s financial records, they raised different constitutional questions.
In the House subpoena case, the question was how far Congress can go in investigating a sitting president. The issue in the New York subpoena dispute was whether a local prosecutor could obtain the personal records of a sitting president who otherwise enjoys immunity from prosecution.
Seeking to dismiss the grand jury subpoena, Trump’s lawyers asserted during oral arguments in May that the president’s immunity from prosecution shielded him from being subpoenaed.
But Roberts rejected that notion, citing two hundred years of doctrine that “no citizen, not even the president” is immune from responding to a criminal proceeding, a principle accepted by successive American presidents going to the early days of the Republic.
“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,” Roberts wrote.
In the Congressional subpoena case, however, the justices, who grappled over balancing the competing interests of the two branches of government, pressed for what they called a “balance approach” to issuing subpoenas to a president, rejecting the House subpoenas as overly broad in scope but also dismissing the president’s lawyer’s call for a heightened presidential subpoena standard.
“Congressional subpoenas for the President’s personal information implicate weighty concerns regarding the separation of powers,” Roberts wrote. “Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns.”
The House’s approach, he wrote, “would leave essentially no limits on the congressional power to subpoena the President’s personal records.”
Lower courts, he added, “should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers.”
The highly anticipated decisions, coming on the last day of the Supreme Court’s current term and just months ahead of a contentious presidential election, carry legal and political implications in a politically charged atmosphere.
First, even if Trump’s accountants end up turning over his financial records to New York prosecutors, the information is likely to be kept under wraps in keeping with grand jury secrecy rules. That will spare Trump from potentially damaging disclosures of his finances during the campaign. For years, the former New York real estate magnate justified withholding his tax returns by claiming they were under an Internal Revenue Service audit.
More broadly, the ruling against the House subpoenas has touched off a debate over its implications for Congressional authority to investigate the executive branch.
Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said the ruling is a setback for Congress.
“This severely hampers the separation of powers by limiting the ability of Congress to serve as a check on the executive branch,” Hackney said. “This case is not about Trump or [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi. It is about the very structure of power at the highest levels of American government.”
But Saikrishna Prakash, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and an authority on executive power, said it remains to be seen what impact if any the ruling will have on the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government.
“The court rejected the high-need standard that Nixon adopted for executive privilege and it rejected the no-standard that the House suggested and settled on something in between — and the in-between is just not fully fleshed out,” Prakash said.
Playing down the court’s rejection of their subpoenas, Congressional Democrats claimed partial victory in their protracted fight for Trump’s financial papers.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels seeking Trump’s records, said that while he was disappointed in the high court’s ruling against their subpoenas, “we are grateful that the court reaffirmed Congress’s broad power to investigate in aid of its legislative authority.”
“Congress has the constitutional power, and the duty, to serve as an effective check on the President and the Executive Branch,” Schiff, who led the House prosecution team during Trump’s impeachment trial, said in a statement. “The Court’s decision today makes clear that President Trump is not absolutely immune from such Congressional scrutiny.”
Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.