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White House and Congress urge Supreme Court to turn Trump away in tax fight

Uncertain what Tuesday's midterm elections mean for control of the legislative branch, Democrats face a narrowing window to obtain the former president’s tax records.  

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress and the Biden administration filed briefs at the Supreme Court on Thursday, urging the justices to ensure that lawmakers are granted possession of former President Donald Trump's tax returns. 

“For nearly a century, this Court has refused to entangle the judiciary in such inquiries into ‘the motives alleged to have prompted’ a congressional request that is otherwise supported by a valid legislative purpose,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s brief

The delivery of Trump's taxes has been on hold since Nov. 1 after Chief Justice John Roberts granted the former president a temporary stay to let the court to review his emergency application.

Arguing for Trump, Consovoy McCarthy attorney Cameron Norris questions the House Ways and Means Committee's motives in seeking the former president's taxes. 

“The Committee’s purpose in requesting President Trump’s tax returns has nothing to do with funding or staffing issues at the IRS and everything to do with releasing the President’s tax information to the public,” Norris wrote. 

Representative Richard Neal from Massachusetts heads the committee, which has requested six years of Trump’s personal and business filings as part of a review of the IRS audit process for presidents and vice presidents. Citing a congressional investigation into President Nixon’s tax returns, the committee denies that there is anything novel about Congress obtaining presidential taxes.

And while Trump's atypical background may have led Congress to take up a renewed interest in presidential taxes, it claims that it has been considering new oversight of presidential tax laws for years.

“Former President Donald Trump’s term in office raised such concerns anew — and amplified them,” Douglas Letter, an attorney at the Office of General Counsel for the House of Representatives, wrote in the committee’s brief. “Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump owned a complex web of businesses, engaged in business activities internationally, had a history of aggressive tax avoidance (as he has boasted), claimed to be under ‘continuous audit’ since before his Presidency, and repeatedly denounced IRS audits of him as ‘unfair.’” (Parentheses in original.)

Because its request clearly falls under Article I purposes, the committee argues that the justices’ review of the matter is unnecessary.

“Longstanding precedent makes clear, moreover, that courts are ‘bound to presume that the action of the legislative body was with a legitimate object if it is capable of being so construed’ — and the request here is manifestly capable of being so construed,” Letter wrote. “Thus, the Trump parties’ allegations of improper Congressional motive or ulterior purpose do ‘not vitiate [the] investigation.’” 

The battle between the former president and Congress over tax returns dates back to 2019. At the time, then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused the committee’s request on the basis that the request was based on partisan motives. 

While another legal battle played out in New York, putting the matter with Congress on the back burner, the White House changed hands and the nascent Biden administration agreed to comply with Congress’ renewed request. Prelogar told the court that the committee’s request regarded a valid legislative purpose and complied with the separation of powers. 

The district court agreed with the government and denied Trump’s claim that the committee overstepped its authority. The court of appeals affirmed and then denied a request for an en banc rehearing. 

“The court of appeals correctly held that the Chairman’s request articulates a legitimate legislative purpose and ‘passes muster under all suggested variations of the separation of powers analysis’ — including the standard this Court adopted in Trump v. Mazars for congressional requests seeking a sitting President’s personal information,” Prelogar wrote. 

The justices' intervention in the case could prove critical for its outcome. While the House is still under Democratic control, this week's midterm elections could flip control to Republicans. It is likely that a GOP-controlled committee would drop the request for Trump’s taxes. 

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