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Supreme Court declines to give Congress access to Trump financial records for now

Conservative justices vote against Trump in tax case
Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch voted against Trump in tax records case 02:14

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday sent the legal battle between President Trump and a trio of Democrat-led House committees seeking troves of his financial records back to the lower courts, effectively ensuring the documents will remain out of public view until after the November presidential election.

The court ruled 7-2 in tossing out lower court rulings in favor of House Democrats who issued subpoenas to Mazars USA, Mr. Trump's longtime account firm, for his business records, and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One, and kicking the case back to the lower courts. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the ruling.

"When Congress seeks information 'needed for intelligent legislative action,' it 'unquestionably' remains 'the duty of all citizens to cooperate,'" Roberts wrote for the court. "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."

Read the court's opinion here

In response to the high court's ruling, Mr. Trump called the efforts by House Democrats 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!" he tweeted.

The White House, meanwhile, said Mr. Trump is "gratified" by the decision.

"By recognizing, yet again, that the job of Congress is to legislate — and not to grandstand, harass, or seek to embarrass its political opponents — the Supreme Court has reinforced the separation of powers that our Framers established as an essential bulwark of individual liberty," the White House said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the decision "is not good news for President Trump."

"The Court has reaffirmed the Congress's authority to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people, as it asks for further information from the Congress," she said in a statement. "We will continue to press our case in the lower courts."

Jay Sekulow, Mr. Trump's personal attorney, said in a statement "we are pleased that in the decisions issued today, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked" Congress, as well as New York investigators in another case involving Mr. Trump's information, from obtaining the records.

"We will now proceed to raise additional Constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts," he said.

In the similar dispute involving a grand-jury subpoena issued by Manhattan's district attorney, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that state investigators can access troves of Mr. Trump's business records and tax returns, delivering a blow to the president. Those records, however, are unlikely to be made public in the near future due to rules regarding secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

The closely watched legal battle between Mr. Trump and Congress before the Supreme Court stemmed from subpoenas issued by three congressional committees in 2019, after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. 

The House Oversight Committee subpoenaed Mazars for eight years of financial records related to Mr. Trump and his business entities as part of its probe into whether the president engaged in illegal conduct before and after he took office, as well as whether he has undisclosed conflicts of interest and is complying with the Constitution's Emoluments Clause.

The president, however, sought to block Mazars from complying with the subpoena, and he sued the accounting firm in federal court in Washington.

Mr. Trump suffered a string of losses in the lower courts. A divided panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in October the subpoena from the Oversight panel had a legitimate legislative purpose. 

The House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees, meanwhile, issued three subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Capital One. The Financial Services Committee sought accounting records from Capital One for Mr. Trump's business entities as part of an examination into money laundering and foreign influence. Both committees issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for financial records for Mr. Trump's business entities, as well as for the president and his three oldest children, dating back to January 2010.

Mr. Trump and his family sued the banks in April 2019 to block enforcement of the subpoena, arguing they exceeded Congress's constitutional and statutory authority. But again, the president lost in federal court. In December, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said the banks can turn over the president's financial information.

Supreme Court arguments in the cases, as well as a third involving a subpoena from the Manhattan district attorney for documents including the president's tax returns, were held remotely by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Trump's attorneys said the subpoenas were not intended to assist in lawmaking, but rather served as a "dragnet" designed to uncover alleged wrongdoing. 

But Douglas Letter, general counsel for the House, said there was nothing novel about the subpoenas and argued lawmakers were conducting its oversight responsibilities as part of efforts to examine whether additional legislation concerning financial disclosures and government ethics is necessary. Additionally, Letter rejected arguments that compliance would be a burden to the president, as they were issued to third parties and did not require any action on the part of Mr. Trump.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that "congressional subpoenas for the president's personal information implicate weighty concerns regarding the separation of powers."

"Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns," Roberts wrote, noting that for more than 200 years, the political branches of government have resolved disputes over information on their own.

The courts, Roberts continued, "must perform a careful analysis that takes adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the 'unique position' of the president."

The cases were a test of the Supreme Court's new conservative majority, which has come under scrutiny from opponents who question whether they will exert independence from the president. Mr. Trump tapped two justices to the high court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, shifting the high court rightward. Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh sided with the majority in Thursday's decisions.

Just before arguments were held in mid-May, the Supreme Court asked lawyers for both sides to submit additional legal briefs addressing whether the cases raise a political question that should not be adjudicated by the courts.

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