The Supreme Court upheld a subpoena from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance for President Donald Trump’s financial records, one of two major rulings that rejected Trump’s most strident legal defenses but that nonetheless could shield his records until after the election.
In a 7-2 decision, Justice Roberts wrote that the Constitution does not prevent a grand jury from issuing a subpoena for the private records of the president of the United States as part of a criminal investigation into their activities as a private citizen.
“In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence,’” Roberts wrote. “Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.”
Vance issued a statement calling the court’s ruling a “tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice.”
The decision means that Mazars USA LLP, Trump’s accounting firm, must comply with the subpoena issued by the grand jury that Vance’s office empaneled, and must hand over the president’s financial records, including his tax returns. However, Vance’s office is not likely to receive them anytime soon. The high court’s ruling gave Trump an opening to raise “further arguments as appropriate” in lower courts against the documents’ release, meaning the case will likely continue.
Soon after, the court released another 7-2 decision on the case of Trump v. Mazars USA, which looked at whether the House could obtain the president’s financial records. The opinion, also written by Roberts, stated that while the House had the authority to obtain the records, the case should go back to lower courts to determine the matter under a narrower interpretation of Congress’ power.
Following the rulings, Trump rambled semi-coherently on Twitter.
In the Vance case, the district attorney issued the subpoenas as part of his continued investigation into whether the Trump Organization falsified documents concealing Trump’s involvement in hush-money payments to two women who allege they had sexual relationships with the married president. The investigation stems from Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen’s admission that he broke campaign finance laws by making the hush-money payments.
Roberts noted the court took the case as it was the first instance of a state court issuing a subpoena for a president’s records.
The case hinged on whether the president of the United States is temporarily immune from discovery during a criminal investigation due to his constitutional position. Trump’s lawyers argued that the president’s records could not be subpoenaed as part of a private investigation because doing so would enable partisan district attorneys to “harass, distract, and interfere” with his job.
Trump’s argument of “temporary presidential immunity” was complicated by prior Supreme Court precedent.
The court first upheld a subpoena directed at a sitting president in the 1807 United States v. Burr case, when former vice president Aaron Burr subpoenaed documents from President Thomas Jefferson while Burr faced prosecution for treason and fomenting war with Spain.
“In the two centuries since the Burr trial, successive Presidents have accepted Marshall’s ruling that the Chief Executive is subject to subpoena,” Roberts wrote in Thursday’s decision.
Then in the 1974 case United States v. Nixon, the court reaffirmed Marshall’s decision in Burr that the president is not immune from investigation or subpoena.
In 1997, the court ruled in Clinton v. Jones that the president is not immune from civil litigation based on their actions prior to being sworn into office. In that case, then-President Bill Clinton sought to quash a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, who sought damages based on her allegations that the president sexually harassed her when he was the governor of Arkansas. Jones’ lawyers sought a deposition from Clinton at the time. Clinton claimed that he was immune from civil lawsuits due to his constitutional position.
The court ruled 9-0 that presidents are not temporarily immune from civil lawsuits unrelated to their actions as president, though they could argue that a particular lawsuit is “unduly burdensome” on a case-by-case basis.
During May 12 oral arguments conducted by teleconference, both conservative and liberal justices asked how Trump’s argument for temporary presidential immunity from subpoenas for his private financial records was any different from Clinton’s argument of presidential immunity from a civil deposition.
The president’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, attempted to argue that the request for financial records is different than the question in Clinton v. Jones about whether the president could be deposed.
“How is this more burdensome, though, than what took place in Clinton v. Jones?” Justice Neil Gorsuch parried.
The president’s arguments were never able to clear the bar of the Clinton v. Jones precedent.