Supreme Court Gutters Emoluments Cases Against Trump

No longer in office, former President Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about claims that his businesses violate the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause.

(Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A pair of cases that accused former President Donald Trump of violating an anti-corruption provision of the U.S. Constitution were tossed as moot Monday morning by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the heart of the cases is the so-called emoluments clause, which bars presidents from receiving gifts from foreign or state governments while in office without congressional consent.

One of the disputes involved business owners in Maryland and Washington who claimed the former president’s continued ownership of a prominent hotel near the White House deprived them of business as foreign and domestic individuals who sought favor from the president could patron his businesses. The Fourth Circuit allowed the case to continue last year

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, brought the second dispute days after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, similarly claiming that Trump’s New York-area hotels gave an illegal path to influence the president. It too was advanced by an appeals court last year. 

Lawyers for all parties involved filed joint motions to dismiss the dispute Friday afternoon. 

“As a private citizen, Mr. Trump can no longer violate the Emoluments Clauses, and there is no longer any possible declaratory or injunctive relief that a court could grant,” wrote the assembled lawyers for the states as well as the nonprofit watchdog group. “Because there is no live case left to resolve, further adjudication would amount to an advisory opinion, rendering this case moot. Furthermore, suspending the briefing during the pendency of the motion to dismiss would not prejudice either party and would conserve judicial resources.”

In a pair of summary orders Monday, the Supreme Court vacated both rulings with instructions that the cases against Trump be dismissed as moot.

The 1950 precedent United States v. Munsingwear Inc. is cited in both orders.  In that case, the justices established the form of vacatur in which a dispute that has become moot is sent back to the lower court with an order to dismiss it.

Seth Barrett Tillman, a legal scholar and lecturer at Maynooth University Department of Law in Ireland, said the Supreme Court’s dismissal order essentially nixes precedent from all rulings handed down during the yearslong dispute.

“Four years of litigation is basically now vacated, we can’t even cite the stuff, which is unfortunate,” he said. “Questions about the enforcement of the emoluments clause have not been answered.” 

Tillman, whose legal scholarship specializes in the use of the words “office” and “officer” in the Constitution, two words the emoluments clause relies on, was a frequent amici contributor in the cases and was noticeably perturbed by Monday’s order. 

He said the unique nature of Trump’s possible emoluments violation was a novel issue within the purview of the courts and resolution would help put many constitutional questions to rest. 

“For some reason the case got slow walked and the DOJ and the courts and the plaintiffs were in no rush,” he said, noting filings often came near or at deadline and extensions requested by either side were often granted without question. 

“And at the end of the day we don’t have answers,” he added.  

But in a joint statement, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh argued the Supreme Court order didn’t prevent some of the dispute’s earliest court opinions from being cited as precedent, including the finding that the “Constitution prohibits federal officials from accepting almost anything of value from foreign or domestic governments.”

They said mootness only affects the appeals court decisions, while the district court rulings can still be cited.

“This decision will serve as precedent that will help stop anyone else from using the presidency or other federal office for personal financial gain the way that President Trump has over the past four years,” the Democratic attorneys general said.  

Even though the dispute never reached a final resolution, CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said his group is proud of the effort to put Trump in check. They believe the lawsuits and headlines that followed the seemingly endless stream of court orders led to a more informed public ahead of the 2020 election.

“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.”

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