Supreme Court Gives Manhattan Prosecutor Access To Trump Financial Records But Rebuffs House Democrats

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July 9, 2020

In a split decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a New York City grand jury may access President Donald Trump's financial records, but sent cases involving congressional demands for the president's papers back to lower courts for additional proceedings.

The decisions mean the president's long-sought financial records will probably not be made public before the November election. The documents now available to Manhattan prosecutors are, for the moment, protected by grand jury secrecy laws, and the lower court litigation involving House Democrats will take months to resolve.

Trump nonetheless decried the rulings on Twitter, asserting that the Court has given presidents "broad deference" in the past. While his fight with congressional investigators will go on for the foreseeable future, potentially unseemly details of past financial dealings will not feature in the 2020 campaign.

Both cases present historic questions about presidential authority, pitting two branches of government against one another in a power contest over the limits of privacy and oversight. Trump's outside lawyers warned that the Court's decisions could open future chief executives to regular harassment from partisan local prosecutors and open their pre-presidential personal lives to prying congressional eyes. The momentous stakes loomed over the Court during oral arguments in May.

"What I hold today will also apply to a future Senator McCarthy asking a future Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman exactly the same questions," Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the Court’s opinion in both cases. Both decisions were 7-2, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in dissent.

Thursday's cases involve subpoenas from two separate entities. The first set are from three committees controlled by House Democrats, who issued subpoenas to the president's longtime creditors and accountants for personal and professional financial records going back a decade. Democrats say those materials are relevant to ethics and finance legislation under consideration, as well as inquiries into foreign meddling in U.S. elections. The second is a grand jury subpoena from Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, who is leading a state criminal investigation into supposed hush money payments from the president to women with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs.

At the center of the House dispute is whether the subpoenas have a "legitimate legislative purpose." Lawyers for the president say the House gave phony reasons for issuing their subpoenas. They contend that the subpoenas are driven by politics and partisanship, while the pending legislation Democrats cite is merely a pretext. That legislation is unconstitutional anyway, Trump's lawyers add, since it would effectively add conditions and qualifications for the presidency, which the Constitution alone sets.

House lawyers counter that Congress can investigate any area on which legislation can be had.

The Vance subpoena seemed less problematic to the justices during oral arguments. In past cases, the Court unanimously required President Richard Nixon to turn over the infamous Watergate tapes to investigators and rejected President Bill Clinton's bid to put off a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct until he left office. Trump's lawyers say this case is different because it involves a local prosecutor, not a federal one. An incumbent president has absolute immunity from state and local prosecution while in office, they argue.

All nine justices rejected the view that presidents have such far-reaching immunity from state proceedings.

"That argument runs up against the 200 years of precedent establishing that presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process," Roberts wrote in the Vance case.

Roberts recited the lengthy history of presidential compliance with criminal process, saying presidents have been subject to subpoenas since the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr. No fewer than six presidents have given depositions or released documents in connection with judicial proceedings, he wrote.

The Court also rejected the Justice Department’s contention that state prosecutors must show a "heightened need" for a president’s personal information. Government lawyers supporting Trump said state prosecutors should have to demonstrate that their subpoena is a "last resort," and that the information sought is relevant to critical decision, like whether to bring criminal charges. That’s because subpoenas can distract the president from his official duties, or subject him to harassment from partisan DAs.

While the Court said no higher showing is necessary for the Vance subpoena, it cautioned that the president still has special protections courts should respect going forward. He can, for example, challenge requests that impede or mean to influence his official day-to-day tasks.

Vance said the investigation, which has been on hold for almost a year, would resume immediately following Thursday’s 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," Vance said.

The Court made similarly quick work of arguments from congressional Democrats in the second case. The chief justice said the House failed "to take adequate account of the significant separation of powers issues" the case raises, and sent the matters back to the lower courts for a new round of litigating.

Going forward, Roberts explained that a "balanced approach" is necessary. Among other things, the lower courts should make sure Congress can’t get the information it’s seeking from Trump from other sources, and it should give detailed and substantial evidence that their subpoenas actually relate to legitimate legislation. Congress may not, as some of the committees wished, use Trump as a "case study" for general legislation, Roberts warned.

"Congressional subpoenas for the president’s personal information implicate weighty concerns," the decision reads. "Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns."

Though the decision leaves open the possibility that at least some of the subpoenas might ultimately survive, House Republicans were mostly satisfied.

"Today's Supreme Court ruling sticks a fork in their efforts to pry into the president's personal life and makes plain what we have known for years — that the Democrats abused their power on their failed quest to destroy the president," said Rep. James Comer (R., Ky.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee.

The Department of Justice supported the president in both disputes. The cases are No. 19-715 Trump v. Mazars and No. 19-635 Trump v. Vance.

Updates 11:12 a.m., 12:45 p.m., 2:29 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.

Published under: Supreme Court