Last Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down two major decisions on President Donald Trump’s tax returns that will likely keep them hidden from voters until after the election this November.
Both cases, decided 7-2 on July 9, defer to lower courts on whether or not to allow congressional and District Attorney subpoenas to proceed. While these landmark cases do not explicitly prohibit the President’s tax returns from entering the public eye, they do toss the cases back to lower jurisdictions, which will likely keep the debate over the release of Trump’s tax returns in courtrooms until after November’s presidential election.
The first of the two cases, Trump v. Vance, involves subpoenas issued by the District Attorney of Manhattan, Cyrus Vance Jr., a democrat. According to The Hill, the Court ruled that Vance can subpoena Trump’s tax records via banks and accounting firms, despite Trump’s office. The primary argument of Trump’s legal team was that, as President, Trump is uniquely immune from standard criminal procedures. The President used a similar legal defense throughout his Impeachment Trial in the U.S. Senate in January and February. The same argument was also made when Trump v. Vance was in a lower court late last year. Vox reports that Trump’s lawyers argued before a court that Trump, as President, could shoot someone on the street and not be liable to criminal prosecution.
In the Supreme Court’s ruling on Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court denied Trump’s defense, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority: “We [the Supreme Court] 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.”
The second of the two cases, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLC, revolved around congressional subpoenas from the House Committees on Oversight, Intelligence, and Financial Services, all lead by Democratic members of Congress. The case is about subpoenas to accounting firm Mazars USA, as well as banks Capital One and Deutsche Bank. These subpoenas are a part of a larger ongoing investigation into President Trump’s personal finances, which he has refused to make public.
In Trump v. Mazars USA, LLC, the Supreme Court, in another 7-2 opinion authored by Roberts, opted to focus on separation of powers between the Presidency and Congress. This case, like Trump v. Vance, was also sent back to lower courts for further deliberation, likely preventing Trump’s tax returns from being released until November.
As noted above, both cases were decided 7-2, with traditionally more conservative Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh siding with the Court’s four liberal justices. Both cases featured Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting. Likely due to his own high court nominees, Neil Gorsuch (nominated 2017) and Brett Kavanaugh (nominated 2018), agreeing he does not enjoy absolute immunity as President, Trump took to Twitter Thursday, calling the Court’s ruling “political prosecution,” and “not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
With Trump being the only President or major candidate for the Presidency in decades to have not released his tax returns, he has been subject to multiple calls to release his tax returns since 2015, when he first announced his presidential candidacy. This issue seems as if it will again take the forefront again in 2020, as Trump faces an increasingly difficult path to re-election. Trump’s main opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, told reporters, including those from The Washington Post, Thursday: “even Richard Nixon released his tax returns… Mr. President, release your tax returns or shut up.”
Surely, the debate over President Trump’s finances will continue well through 2020 and beyond, regardless of whether or not Mr. Trump wins re-election this November. Thursday, the Supreme Court doubled down on assertions that the President does not have universal and absolute immunity, as they had previously said in cases involving Presidents Nixon and Clinton. That decision on the part of the Court will be consequential for many years as a key limit on presidential power and the rule of law. However, the Court’s ruling that Trump’s fate may continue to be litigated in Court for months will have much more immediate implications, with direct effects on November’s election and who is in the Oval Office on January 20, 2021.
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