In two 7-2 opinions issued Thursday, the Supreme Court led again by Chief Justice John Roberts, determined that President Donald Trump is not immune from subpoenas requesting access to his tax returns from before he won the White House, but did not immediately hand over the financial documents to either New York City’s District Attorney or House Democrats, sending both requests back to lower courts for further litigation.
The Manhattan District Attorney had “subpoenaed Trump’s records as part of a criminal investigation into potential wrongdoing by the president and his organization. Multiple House committees had subpoenaed Trump’s records ostensibly as part of an effort at oversight and to inform potential legislation,” Fox News reported.
In both cases, though, the Supreme Court declined to simply force Trump to hand over the documents, instead remanding both cases to lower courts to review again in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Trump does not enjoy immunity from investigation for potential incidents that occurred before he was president.
Both of President Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, agreed with the decision but wrote their own concurring opinion. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Fox News noted that “[t]he court limited its ruling and the arguments before it to whether Trump has ‘absolute immunity,” as well as to whether “state prosecutors are required to show a ‘heightened need’ in order to obtain documents as part of investigations into a president.”
“President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
In the second case, determining whether the House Democrats could seek Trump’s financial records, Roberts noted that the case touches on preserving the House’s subpoena power but balanced against the Constitutional separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches.
“Without limits on its subpoena powers, Congress could ‘exert an imperious control’ over the Executive Branch and aggrandize itself at the President’s expense, just as the Framers feared,” he wrote.
That said, though, Roberts added that when “Congress seeks information ‘needed for intelligent legislative action,’ it ‘unquestionably’ remains ‘the duty of all citizens to cooperate.'” Investigations into the president, though, “implicate special concerns regarding the separation of powers,” he said, suggesting, per Fox, that lower courts had not adequately analyzed the Congressional investigation’s impact on the office of the president.
To that end, both cases — the Manhattan DA’s and the Congressional case — were referred back to lower courts where both parties will be able to make new and renewed arguments. Ultimately, the timeline benefits President Trump and the Trump re-election campaign, who were concerned that a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court would put Trump’s tax returns at the center of the 2020 presidential election.
Thursday’s ruling will likely keep the issue in the courts for at least several more months.
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