Supreme Court upholds NY prosecutors’ access to Trump’s tax returns, rebuffs Congress
The Supreme Court in a split decision on Thursday sided with New York state prosecutors seeking President Trump’s tax returns, even as it shielded a trove of his financial records from Congress.
The justices upheld a Manhattan district attorney subpoena for eight years of Trump’s financial documents, including his personal and corporate tax returns. But they declined to grant Congress access to records subpoenaed by a trio of Democratic-led House committees.
Both cases were decided by a 7-2 vote.
The ruling in the New York dispute makes it more likely that Trump’s tax returns are eventually made public, though it’s unclear if they would be disclosed before the November general election. More fundamentally, the decision flatly rejects Trump’s argument that a sitting president enjoys absolute immunity from investigations.
“In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.”
Roberts’ opinion siding with New York prosecutors was joined by the court’s liberal wing, as well as Trump’s two nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The decision hands a defeat to Trump, though he may raise additional objections about the details of the subpoena.
In the second case, the court’s decision not to enforce the congressional subpoenas means that Congress, for now, will not have access to materials the committees said they needed in order to assess the adequacy of current laws covering everything from ethics to money laundering, and to probe the susceptibility of U.S. elections to foreign interference.
Trump’s tax returns and financial records have been closely watched since his 2016 presidential campaign. He is the first president in decades to refuse to make any of his tax returns public, noting that he is under audit, though the IRS has said that does not prevent Trump from voluntary disclosure.
The New York case arose after Cyrus Vance Jr., the Democratic district attorney for Manhattan, obtained a grand jury subpoena for Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA.
Vance’s office is looking into payments made to silence two women who allege they had affairs with Trump, including adult-film star Stormy Daniels, before he became president.
Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen is serving a prison term in part for his role in the payoff scheme, which violated campaign finance laws and which Cohen said he conducted at the direction of Trump to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and his private attorneys filed multiple lawsuits to prevent Mazars and two additional third-party financial institutions — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — from disclosing Trump’s financial records.
Legal experts say the court’s decision to enforce the New York grand jury subpoena creates the possibility that Trump’s tax returns are eventually made public, though there is no guarantee of their disclosure, and a potential timeline is unclear.
Under New York law, a judge can approve breaches of grand jury secrecy if there is a compelling reason to do so, and developments in the criminal probe itself could diminish the reason for secrecy, according to Richard Lempert, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
The second case, involving four congressional subpoenas, arose after three House committees pursued a lengthy paper trail of Trump’s personal and corporate records. Broadly speaking, each Democratic-led committee said the materials were necessary to carry out their legislative and oversight functions.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee argued its subpoena of Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, was needed to inform rules governing ethics, conflicts of interest and presidential financial disclosure.
Another set of subpoenas, from the House Financial Services Committee, requested records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One as a follow-up on press reports that Deutsche Bank staffers had raised concerns that Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were linked to illicit financial activity.
The House Intelligence Committee also subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, but its focus was on Kremlin efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and whether Russian or other foreign nationals have financial leverage over Trump.
Lawmakers prevailed in every round of the battle in the lower courts.
But the justices on Wednesday reversed those rulings, finding that the lower courts had failed to properly consider the weighty separation of powers concerns at hand.
“When Congress seeks information ‘needed for intelligent legislative action,’ it ‘unquestionably’ remains ‘the duty of all citizens to cooperate,’” Roberts wrote for the majority. “Congressional subpoenas for information from the President, however, implicate special concerns regarding the separation of powers. The courts below did not take adequate account of those concerns.”
As in the New York case, Roberts was again joined by the court’s four more liberal justices, as well as Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. In both decisions, two of the court’s more conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented.