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Supreme Court rules Manhattan prosecutor can access Trump financial records

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 ruled that Manhattan's chief prosecutor can obtain troves of President Trump's business records and tax returns, a momentous defeat for the president in his efforts to shield his personal financial information from state investigators.

The high court ruled 7-2 in favor of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the president's business dealings and hush-money payments made to two women who allegedly had affairs with the president years before he was elected. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, appointed to the high court by Mr. Trump, joined the majority, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. The justices sent the dispute back to the lower courts for further proceedings.

"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."

Read the court's opinion here

Vance is seeking business records and tax returns dating back to 2011 from Mazars USA, Mr. Trump's longtime accounting firm. But the president and his attorneys had rebuffed Vance's efforts to obtain his financial information, arguing the president has "absolute immunity" from state criminal proceedings while in office. The high court, however, rejected Mr. Trump's assertion of absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas.

In a statement after the ruling, Vance hailed the decision as "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." 

"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," the district attorney said.

Jay Sekulow, the president's personal attorney, said in a statement the legal team "will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts."

The White House said in a statement that with its ruling, the high court "protected the president's financial records from intrusive subpoenas from a partisan district attorney."

"As the Court determined, the New York district attorney has not yet established his ability to secure access to those records," the White House said. "Instead, further proceedings are required in the lower court in which the President can raise additional arguments, including constitutional protections, against this frivolous and politically motivated subpoena."

Mr. Trump has gone to great lengths to shield his business records and tax returns from public view, mounting legal challenges to subpoenas issued by Vance and a trio of Democrat-led congressional committees for his personal information. While the president vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to release his tax returns once an IRS audit was complete, he has not done so, raising questions from his political opponents as to whether the records would shed light on his vast business dealings.

While the Supreme Court's ruling paves the way for Mazars to turn over the records sought by the Manhattan district attorney, it's unlikely that information will become public in the near future due to rules regarding secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

The president has suffered numerous defeats in the federal courts in his efforts to block the subpoenas issued by Vance as part of his investigation. In November, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Mr. Trump's claims of immunity "do not bar the enforcement of a state grand jury subpoena directing a third party to produce non-privileged material, even when the subject matter under investigation pertains to the president."

The justices heard arguments in the case remotely by telephone in May, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the court to adjust the way it conducts its business. In addition to weighing the constitutionality of the subpoenas from Vance, the high court also considered the subpoenas from House Democrats for several years of Mr. Trump's financial records. In that legal battle, the Supreme Court sent the cases back to the lower courts, further ensuring the president's financial records will not be made public before the November election.

The president reacted to the rulings on Twitter, saying the investigations were "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!" he tweeted

The cases pitting Mr. Trump against congressional and state investigators 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, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, shifting the high court rightward.

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