Supreme Court Advances Subpoena of Trump Tax Returns

President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a June 18 roundtable with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Upholding a New York City prosecutor’s subpoena for President Donald Trump’s tax returns, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Thursday that presidents are not immune from state criminal proceedings while in office.

“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our court established that no citizen, not even the president is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “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.”

The decision was one of two the justices handed down on subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records, as the court separately punted on a related case involving subpoenas from House Democrats.

Two months earlier, the court heard remote arguments where attorneys for Trump and the Justice Department argued the president’s position makes him immune from state-level criminal process and that Congress overstepped its authority in subpoenaing the records.

In backing the New York subpoena for Trump’s tax returns, however, the court was more forceful: the Constitution does not grant the president special immunity from state criminal process, Roberts wrote.

Along with the liberal wing of the court, Roberts was joined in both cases by the Trump-appointed Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. In both cases, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas each penned separate dissents.

The case out of New York evolved from a grand jury subpoena Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance issued to Trump’s longtime accounting firm Mazars USA as part of an investigation into the hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had an affair with Trump in 2006.

Trump filed suit before Mazars could hand over the sought-after tax returns, only to see his challenge eviscerated by a New York federal judge and defeated again by the Second Circuit.

Winding back to 1807, when former Vice President Aaron Burr was on trial for treason, Roberts pointed to the subpoena upheld by Chief Justice John Marshall that compelled President Thomas Jefferson to supply Burr with requested documents. 

That decision, Roberts wrote, set a precedent presidents followed for nearly two centuries until President Richard Nixon fought a special prosecutor’s subpoena for records of his meetings in the Oval Office. 

Against this extensive backdrop, Roberts quickly dispatched with Trump’s argument that facing the subpoena would distract him from his official duties.

Roberts found other longstanding court precedents sufficient to ward off Trump’s concerns that state prosecutors will issue wave after wave of subpoena meant to harass the president.

He also declined the Justice Department’s invitation to require state prosecutors show a heightened need for a presidential subpoena. Such a standard would give protections to the president’s private documents that were meant solely for official business, Roberts wrote, adding that they would also hamper the public interest in giving a grand jury access to the full array of documents necessary to conduct a thorough investigation.

That said, further arguments against the subpoena still remain available to Trump as the litigation continues, the chief justice acknowledged.

Vance praised the decision and said his office’s investigation will continue.

“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 in a statement. “Our investigation, which was delayed for almost a year by this lawsuit, will resume, guided as always by the grand jury’s solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead.”

Trump blasted both subpoenas over Twitter, railing against the court and casting himself as the victim of politically motivated investigations.

“The Supreme Court sends case back to lower court, arguments to continue,” Trump tweeted. “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.”

The dissent from Thomas says a court could block enforcement of Vance’s subpoena — despite holding that presidents are not categorically immune — by crediting evidence that the subpoena interfered with Trump’s official duties.

“In sum, the demands on the president’s time and the importance of his tasks are extraordinary, and the office of the president cannot be delegated to subordinates,” Thomas wrote. “A subpoena imposes both demands on the president’s limited time and a mental burden, even when the president is not directly engaged in complying.”

Alito similarly urged a heightened standard for issuing a subpoena seeking a president’s personal documents. He said the court’s decision ignores the obvious issue that the subpoena is not an ordinary subpoena and that Trump is not an ordinary defendant. 

“The court’s decision threatens to impair the functioning of the presidency and provides no real protection against the use of the subpoena power by the nation’s 2,300+ local prosecutors,” Alito wrote. “Respect for the structure of government created by the Constitution demands greater protection for an institution that is vital to the nation’s safety and well-being.”

Concurring only in judgment, with Gorsuch joining him, Kavanaugh wrote he would have imported the standard the court put forward in its 1974 decision in United States v. Nixon, which held a prosecutor must show a “demonstrated, specific need” for a president’s information.

The Trump appointee predicted there will be future rounds of litigation to determine the exact impacts of Thursday’s decision.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan fully joined the two Roberts opinions on Thursday. While Gorsuch and Kavanaugh concurred in judgment in the New York case, they otherwise joined the ruling on the House subpoenas in full.


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