The Courts

Supreme Court Puts An End To Corruption Cases Against Trump

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The Supreme Court on Monday effectively ended several lawsuits alleging that former President Donald Trump violated anti-corruption provisions in the Constitution.

The cases, from New York City and Washington, D.C., argued Trump was violating the Constitution's emoluments clause by taking money from foreign and domestic political entities at his restaurants and hotels while in office. The justices said Monday that the disputes are now moot, and they instructed two lower courts to erase earlier decisions that went against the former president.

The emoluments cases were the opening salvo of four years of hard-fought lawfare with the Trump family. The suits attracted support from Democrats in Congress, blue state attorneys general, progressive lawyers, and famous legal scholars. In the end, after years of litigating, the courts never definitively answered whether Trump's singular arrangement was unlawful, and Monday's order wiped away the few precedents developed for a little-known provision of the Constitution.

The lawsuits were bedeviled with difficult questions from the start. One was foundational: Federal courts had never actually defined what an emolument is, so it was unclear whether the emoluments clause covered Trump's business transactions. Even if it did, there were other hard questions, like what judges could do to stop it, or who could challenge Trump in court. Much of the legal battle focused on the latter question.

In the New York case, a group of hoteliers and restaurant owners claimed Trump encouraged foreign powers and government officials to patronize his businesses. That undercut their ability to compete with Trump properties, they said, and hurt their bottom line.

A federal judge said the connection between Trump and the alleged lost business was "too tenuous" in 2017 and dismissed the case for lack of standing. A federal appeals court revived the suit a year later, but the case ultimately floundered with Monday's order.

The oversight group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) was also involved in the New York and D.C. cases. CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said the real victory is the awareness CREW raised along the way.

"This important litigation made the American people aware for four years of the pervasive corruption that came from a president maintaining a global business and taking benefits and payments from foreign and domestic governments," Bookbinder said. "Only Trump losing the presidency and leaving office ended these corrupt constitutional violations and stopped these groundbreaking lawsuits."

The disputes inspired deep disagreements and sharp exchanges among judges. In May 2020, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote a no-holds-barred dissent after the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the D.C. emoluments lawsuit, saying the case was a means of harassment that had no business in federal court.

"We are reaching the point of solving political differences increasingly through litigation rather than through legislation and elections," Wilkinson wrote. "This is a profoundly anti-democratic development pressed in a suit whose wrongfulness and transparently political character will diminish the respect to which courts are entitled."

The justices also declined to hear an emoluments lawsuit from Democratic members of Congress in October. Monday's cases are No. 20-330 Trump v. CREW and No. 20-331 Trump v. District of Columbia.