Supreme Court hands Trump win, blocks Congress from getting his tax returns for now

The rulings came on the final day of the high court's 2019-2020 term

Updated: July 9, 2020 - 12:32pm

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The Supreme Court on Thursday said President Trump is not immune from a New York district attorney's subpoenas of his tax returns, but that the prosecutor will not receive the documents right away.

The decision was the first of two Thursday by the high court on the question of the president's financial records. The case will now head back to a lower court, which appears to mean the years-long matter will not be resolved before the November presidential election.

In the second decision, the high court blocked House Democrats' requests to access Trump's tax records.

In Trump v. Vance, the majority opined that a subpoena to a sitting president does not have to meet a heightened standard to apply. The court ruled 7-2, with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch concurred with the majority, while Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.

In the second ruling, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, the court avoided a ruling, saying instead that lower courts had not taken full account of "all the possible separation of powers concerns." The court's decision effectively blocks House Democrats from accessing Trump's financial records for the time being. 

Shortly after the rulings were released, the president took to Twitter to respond to the opinions of the day: "The Supreme Court sends case back to Lower Court, arguments to continue. This is all a political prosecution. 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!"

In Trump v. Vance, the court rejected the argument that the president is immune from investigation while he holds high office. They determined that a prosecutor need not show a greater-than-average need to obtain records. However, because Vance is seeking the documents as part of a grand jury investigation, which are confidential processes, even if the New York district attorney receives the president's tax returns and personal financial documents, they will likely not be made public any time soon — almost certainly not before November. 

In Mazars, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "Congressional subpoenas for information from the President, however, implicate special concerns regarding the separation of powers. The courts below did not take adequate account of those concerns." 

The vacated ruling returns the case to lower courts, with no timeline for when the case will reach its final resolution. 

Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said of the day's decisions, "It's not good news for President Trump. Congress will continue to conduct oversight for the people."

The decisions stem from Trump's refusal since the 2016 election cycle to release his tax returns and other financial records.

The broad question before the high court was whether Trump could block subpoenas sent to his accountants and bankers from congressional House committees and New York prosecutors. 

The case was brought by the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees and sought a broad array of Trump's financial records, pertaining to his personal finances, companies and his family. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating whether Trump altered descriptions of his assets to obtain various loans and reduce the taxes he owed. 

The high court's decision Thursday marked its final opinion day of the 2019-2020 term. 

House lawyers argued that Congress requires the president's banking information to effectively conduct oversight and draft legislation. The president's attorneys argued that the House's reasoning is vague and there is no legitimate need for the information.

In the second case, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, sought eight years of Trump's business and personal tax records.

The records are in connection to an investigation into the role that the president and the Trump Organization played related to a series of payments made prior to the 2016 election. The payments include one to Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, who was reimbursed for paying off porn actress Stormy Daniels, who alleges that she had an affair with Trump.

Vance argued that "this court has long recognized that a sitting president may be subject to a subpoena in a criminal proceeding," citing SCOTUS's 1974 decision in United States v. Nixon, which required President Richard Nixon to release the infamous Oval Office tapes. 

The president's lawyers contend that a sitting president is immune from criminal investigations while he is in office, and allowing state and local officials to subpoena sitting presidents could open the door to an onslaught of politically motivated legal harassment. 

Though Trump is being represented by private attorneys, the Department of Justice also made the case in support of the president that none of the subpoenas being decided upon today meet the purportedly high bar meant to apply to information being sought about the personal conduct of a sitting POTUS. 

 

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