WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge in Washington Monday night conditionally granted President Donald Trump "very limited relief" in his case seeking to block New York from handing off his state tax returns to House Democrats.
U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols said in a late-night order that he members of the House Ways and Means Committee must immediately notify the court and Trump if it requests the president's New York tax returns under a state law. The judge further ordered that the committee wait 14 days to receive any records it requests so that the court has time to decide whether the request is "lawful."
"In the Court’s view, this relief ensures that Mr. Trump has an opportunity to press his claims before they become moot while treading as lightly as possible on the Congressional Defendants’ interests," Nichols wrote in his opinion.
The lawsuit filed by the president in July is encircled by questions of ripeness and hypotheticals. The House Ways and Means Committee, which the president has sued as a private citizen, has yet to request the financial records from New York.
House attorney Josephine Morse told Nichols that an admission by the president is evidence the case is moot.
“As Mr. Trump admits, he has not been injured by this hypothetical request by the committee,” Morse said at a hearing earlier Monday on the House panel’s motion to dismiss.
Trump took issue in the case with the TRUST Act passed by New York lawmakers in May authorizing state tax officials to release returns filed by lawmakers and political party leaders in response to requests from three congressional committees, including Ways and Means.
Nichols already dismissed the president’s lawsuit against the New York attorney general and commissioner of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance based on lack of jurisdiction.
On Monday, the Trump appointee requested the House notify the president if legislators make a request for the state financial records, extending a commitment already made to provide the court “contemporaneous notice” if it sought the tax returns from New York.
Morse indicated from the lectern that she could not respond immediately to the judge’s request. The House filed a notice Monday evening committing to alert both the court and the president in the event it request the New York returns.
Nichols signaled he would release a dismissal order by Tuesday as long as the House made that commitment.
Trump attorney William Consovoy of Consovoy McCarthy said it would be “deeply troubling” if the committee were to issue a request the day after the case is dismissed but also conceded the request may never come. He argued the committee has failed to demonstrate a legitimate legislative purpose for access to the records.
Democrats fighting on various legal fronts to unveil Trump’s financial records have repeatedly stated that reviewing the president’s holdings is critical as lawmakers push forward financial ethics bills.
The House argues it is protected from being dragged into court by the president under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution in order to carry out its legislative duties.
Morse also warned Nichols to “tread very carefully” in issuing a decision given the separation of powers weighting the lawsuit.
“This would be an unprecedented injunction...an interference with the balance of government’s investigative and legislative processes,” Morse said.
Nichols posed a hypothetical to the House legal team – an inquisitive tool he employed routinely in the previous two hearings in the case – asking if releasing Trump’s state tax returns to the public amounted to a legitimate legislative purpose.
House attorney Megan Barbero said the parties did “not have to grapple with that hypothetical.” Any request from the committee for Trump’s returns would be for legislative work such as congressional hearings, not to disseminate the president’s records in a press release, the attorney said.
“Congress is entitled to an assumption of regularity,” Barbero said, a phrase often invoked when the issue of proper government functioning is at play.
“What, if anything, are you authorized to tell me about if a request is forthcoming?” Nichols asked the House.
Morse indicated there has been no change in the committee’s position offered in court documents and open hearings that it is still considering whether to issue a request.
The Committee on Ways and Means is currently battling the Trump administration in a separate lawsuit against the Treasury Department alleging it has shielded the president’s federal tax returns from congressional scrutiny.
The complaint, filed in the same federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. where Monday’s hearing on Trump’s lawsuit against the committee unfolded, states the financial records would shed light on how new tax codes, championed by the president, implicate his business empire.
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