Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court waded into blockbuster battles pitting President Trump against his Democratic rivals, convening Tuesday to hear arguments in disputes over the president’s efforts to shield his financial records from Congress and New York investigators.
The cases involve document requests to Mr. Trump’s accounting firm and financial institutions he did business with as part of investigations mounted by three Houses committees and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance into the president’s business dealings and conduct before and during his presidency.
A ruling from the Supreme Court is expected by late June, in the heart of the presidential campaign, and will have implications for the separation of powers. Mr. Trump has fought vehemently to shield his tax returns despite promising to make them public during the 2016 presidential campaign, though a loss at the Supreme Court could bring an end to those efforts.
How to listen to Supreme Court arguments
What: The Supreme Court hears arguments by telephone in Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank; Trump v. Vance
Date: Tuesday, May 12
Time: 10 a.m. ET
The justices will first hear two consolidated cases involving congressional subpoenas issued to Mr. Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
The Democrat-led House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena to Mazars in April 2019 requesting eight years of financial records related to Mr. Trump and his business entities as part of an investigation into whether the president may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his presidency, as well as whether he has undisclosed conflicts of interest and is complying with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
But Mr. Trump sought to block Mazars from complying with the subpoena and sued his longtime accounting firm in federal district court in Washington. The district court, however, sided with congressional investigators. A divided panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the subpoena as constitutional, ruling it had a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
The second, similar dispute involves three subpoenas issued by the Democrat-led House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees to Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
The Financial Services Committee subpoenaed Capital One for account records for Mr. Trump’s business entities as part of an investigation into money laundering and foreign influence. The same panel and the House Intelligence Committee also issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank for financial records for Mr. Trump’s business entities, as well as for the president and his three children, dating back to January 2010.
The president and his family sued the banks in April 2019 to challenge enforcement of the subpoenas, claiming they exceeded Congress’s constitutional and statutory authority. The federal district court in New York, however, denied the request to block compliance. In December, a divided panel of judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the banks can turn over Mr. Trump’s financial information and found the committees had legitimate legislative purposes for issuing the subpoenas.
The third case, which will be heard on its own, involves a grand-jury subpoena issued by Vance to Mazars as part of a criminal investigation into Mr. Trump’s business dealings and hush-money payments made to two women who allegedly had affairs with the president years before the 2016 election. Vance is seeking business records and tax returns dating back to 2011.
Mr. Trump sued in federal court in September, arguing he is immune to criminal proceedings while in office, but the district court ruled against him. The 2nd Circuit ruled the president’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 disputes will be a test of the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority for critics who scrutinize its independence. Mr. Trump has named two justices to the high court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation in October 2018 shifted the court rightward.
Mr. Trump’s attorneys have called the subpoenas from Congress and New York prosecutors “unprecedented” and warned upholding those from the House committees will effectively give Congress the green light to investigate the private lives of their political opponents.
Under the ruling from the D.C. Circuit, “Congress can subpoena any private records it wishes from the president on the mere assertion that it is considering legislation that might require presidents to disclose that same information,” they wrote. “Given the obvious temptation to investigate the personal affairs of political rivals, subpoenas concerning the private lives of presidents will become routine in times of divided government.”
But lawyers for the House of Representatives argue there is nothing novel about the subpoenas seeking Mr. Trump’s records and said Congress is conducting its oversight responsibilities and determining whether new legislation concerning financial disclosures and government ethics is needed.
“There is no substantial legal question presented, no question of privilege, and no threat of any harm beyond disclosure itself that would flow from compliance with the subpoena,” House attorneys told the Supreme Court in the case involving the Oversight Committee’s subpoena. “Furthermore, what there is here is the subpoena issued by a committee of a House of Congress, the 116h House of Representatives, which the people elected to enact legislation and oversee the workings of the government for a two-year term.”
In the case involving the grand-jury subpoena from Manhattan’s chief prosecutor, Mr. Trump’s attorneys said the subpoena was “highly intrusive” and warned the state criminal process interferes with a president’s ability to execute his constitutional duties.
“Politically motivated subpoenas like this one are a perfect illustration of why a sitting president should be categorically immune from state criminal process,” they told the Supreme Court.
But New York prosecutors said Vance’s subpoena is to a third-party, Mazars, and therefore has no bearing on the president’s ability to discharge the duties of the office.
“A criminal subpoena that does not involve the president’s official duties is likewise enforceable,” they told the Supreme Court. “After all, requiring production of documents relating entirely to the president’s activities as a private citizen and having no relationship to his official duties poses no risk of tempering his official communications, nor does it threaten to render him unduly cautious in discharging his official duties.”
The Justice Department is backing Mr. Trump in the trio of cases. In the two disputes over congressional subpoenas, Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in a filing with the high court that the subpoenas do not satisfy the heightened requirements when seeking information from the president.
“These cases involve the first attempts by congressional committees to demand the personal records of a sitting president of the United States,” he said. “That use of their limited and implied investigatory powers poses a serious risk of harassing the president and distracting him from his constitutional duties.”
Likewise, Francisco said the subpoena from the Manhattan district attorney to Mazars raises “serious constitutional concerns.”
“Leaving local prosecutors with unfettered authority to issue such subpoenas creates a serious risk that those prosecutors — prioritizing local concerns and disregarding significant federal interests — may subject the president to highly burdensome demands for information,” he told the court. “Leaving local prosecutors with such unfettered authority also raises the risk that prosecutors could use subpoenas to harass the president as a result of opposition to his policies.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has roiled the Supreme Court’s term, forcing it to close to the public indefinitely and cancel in-person arguments for March and April, the court threw another twist in the two legal battles between Mr. Trump and congressional Democrats.
Late last month, the 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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