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Reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Rulings in Trump v. Vance & Trump v. Mazars

In Trump v. Vance  and Trump v. Mazars the Supreme Court issued opinions in two cases concerning the release of President Trump’s financial records.  Reactions to the July 9th rulings have varied, with opinions differing on whether or not Trump’s reputation and presidency will be significantly impacted by what his financial records may reveal.

Below, we outline the details of each case and the reactions to the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Background Trump v. Vance

In Trump v. Vance, the court stated that Trump had no absolute right to block the Manhattan District attorney’s access to Trump’s financial records for the purposes of a grand jury investigation. The court held in a 7-2 decision that “Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President.” The court’s opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority including Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan with Justice Kavanaugh filing a concurring opinion joined by Justice Gorsuch, and Justice Thomas and Justice Alito writing separate dissenting opinions.

Trump v. Vance involves a state criminal grand jury subpoena not served on President Trump, but on two banks and an accounting firm that were custodians of the records. The subpoenaed records are for eight years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns and other banking documents in the years leading up to the 2016 election served on behalf of New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance., Jr. Vance’s investigation centered around payments made to two women -- Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels -- who alleged they had affairs with Trump before he entered office.

The Supreme Court considered state criminal subpoenas could threaten “the independence and effectiveness” of the president as well as undermining the president’s leadership and reputation, weighing Trump’s circumstances against those in Clinton v. Jones, the 1997 case where President Bill Clinton sought to have a civil suit filed against him by Paula Corbin Jones dismissed on the grounds of presidential immunity, and that the case would be a distraction to his presidency.

Trump argued that the burden state criminal subpoenas would put on his presidency would be even greater than in Clinton because “criminal litigation poses unique burdens on the President’s time and will generate a considerable if not overwhelming degree of mental preoccupation” and would make him a target for harassment.

The Court addressed Trump’s argument, stating that they “rejected a nearly identical argument in Clinton, concluding that the risk posed by harassing civil litigation was not ‘serious’ because federal courts have the tools to deter and dismiss vexatious lawsuits. Harassing state criminal subpoenas could, under certain circumstances, threaten the independence or effectiveness of the Executive. But here again the law already seeks to protect against such abuse … Grand juries are prohibited from engaging in ‘arbitrary fishing expeditions’ or initiating investigations ‘out of malice or an intent to harass.’”

The Court also considered that Vance is a case addressing state law issues where Clinton was a case addressing federal law issues. Trump argued that the Supremacy Clause gives a sitting president absolute immunity from state criminal proceedings because compliance with subpoenas would impair his performance of his Article II functions. Arguing on behalf of the United States, the Solicitor General claimed state grand jury subpoenas should fulfill a higher need standard.  In response, the Court ruled, “A state grand jury subpoena seeking a President’s private papers need not satisfy a heightened need standard … there has been no showing here that heightened protection against state subpoenas is necessary for the Executive to fulfill his Article II functions.”

Notably, the Supreme Court decision does not allow for public access to Trump’s tax returns; they will be part of a Grand Jury investigation, which is confidential.  However, many took away the message that the majority’s decision--bolstered by Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, Trump appointees, who concurred--that the law applies to everyone.

Reactions to SCOTUS Decision from Jay Sekulow and Cyrus Vance, Jr.

Both Vance and Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow expressed they were content with the Court’s ruling, albeit for different reasons.

"We are pleased that in the decisions issued today, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked both Congress and New York prosecutors from obtaining the President’s financial records. We will now proceed to raise additional Constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts,” Sekulow tweeted.

“This is 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,” Vance said in a statement

Other Reactions to the Supreme Court’s Trump v. Vance Ruling

Following the Supreme Court’s arguments in Vance, lawyers and legal scholars commented about what the decision could mean for the presidency.

In a C-SPAN interview with National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen, Columbia Law School Professor Gillian Metzger spoke about the issue of burden on the president in Vance, "A lot of what is being shown in these cases is who bears the burden when. Clinton v. Jones said that first, you have to show the burden on the presidency...already the Solicitor General is trying to move us beyond where we had been in Clinton vs. Jones. Among the justices on the court, my sense is that they are really trying to figure out what the standards should be...I didn't get the sense of a stark ideological divide on this."

In agreement with seeing the ruling as a victory for the rule of law, David Cole, the ACLU National Legal Director said: “The Supreme Court today confirmed that the president is not above the law. The court ruled that President Trump must follow the law, like the rest of us. And that includes responding to subpoenas for his tax records.”

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, a frequent Trump critic, highlighted the victory on Twitter, saying: “No absolute immunity from state and local grand jury subpoenas for Trump’s financial records to investigate his crimes as a private citizen. Being president doesn’t confer the kind of categorical shield Trump claimed.”

Of a practical matter, though, Mark Zaid, the Washington attorney who represented the whistleblower who set the stage for Trump’s impeachment proceedings, tweeted

"Even if Trump's tax returns reveal fraud, I find it doubtful that this fact would finally be straw that broke his supporters' back on election day.  But importance of ruling is that criminal investigation continues & will exist past expiration of Trump's presidential immunity.” (Should we embed the tweet?)

Background for the Supreme Court’s Ruling in Trump v. Mazars

The Supreme Court remanded back to the lower courts the second case, Trump v. Mazars in a 7-2 decision. The Mazars case involved three committees of the U. S. House of Representatives attempting to secure Trump’s financial documents, and the financial documents of his children and affiliated businesses for investigative purposes. Each of the committees sought overlapping sets of financial documents, supplying different justifications for the requests, explaining that the information would help guide legislative reform in areas ranging from money laundering and terrorism to foreign involvement in U. S. elections.

Additionally, the President in his personal capacity, along with his children and affiliated businesses—contested subpoenas issued by the House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees in the Southern District of New York.  Trump and the other petitioners argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the subpoenas violated separation of powers. The President did not, however, argue that any of the requested records were protected by executive privilege.  Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, with Thomas and Alito filing dissenting opinions.

In Mazars, the District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the Congressional subpoenas, indicating the investigations served a “legislative purpose” as they could provide insight on reforming presidential candidate’s financial disclosure requirements.  However, Roberts writes: “the courts below did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information.”

In the opinion, Roberts sets out a list of items the lower courts need to consider involving Congress’s powers of investigation and subpoena, noting that previously these disagreements had been settled via arbitration, and not litigation.  Additionally, Roberts summarizes the argument before the court, drawing on the Watergate era Senate Select Committee D. C. Circuit  made by the President and the Solicitor General, saying the House must demonstrate the information sought is “demonstrably critical” to its legislative purpose did not apply here.  Roberts, stated that this standard applies to Executive privilege, which, while crucial, does not extend to “nonprivileged, private information.”  He writes: “We decline to transplant that protection root and branch to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, which by definition does not implicate sensitive Executive Branch deliberations.”

However, Roberts detailed that earlier legal analysis ignored the “significant separation of powers issues raised by congressional subpoenas” and that congressional subpoenas “for the President’s information unavoidably pit the political branches against one another.” With these constraints in mind, Roberts charged the lower court to consider the following in regards to congressional investigations and subpoenas:

  1. Does the legislative purpose warrant the involvement of the President and his papers?

  2. Is the subpoena appropriately narrow to accomplish the congressional objective?

  3. Does the evidence requested by Congress in the subpoena further a valid legislative aim?

  4. Is the burden on the president justified?

Reactions to Trump v. Mazars

Nikolas Bowie, an assistant Harvard Law Professor, turning to Robert’s analysis in the opinion on Congressional investigations opinion discussing Congressional investigations indicated the decision “introduces new limits on Congress’s power to obtain the information that it needs to legislate effectively on behalf of the American people . . . the Supreme Court authorized federal courts to block future subpoenas using a balancing test that weighs ‘the asserted legislative purpose’ of the subpoenas against amorphous burdens they might impose on the President.”

Additionally, Bowie points out, “it seems unlikely that the American people will see the information Congress requested until after the November election.” 

Writing for the nonprofit public policy organization, The Brookings Institution, Richard Lempert, Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology Emeritus at the University of Michigan, concurs with Bowie’s point, writing that the Mazars decision may set a new standard for Congressional subpoenas moving forward:

“The genius of Robert’s opinion in Mazars is that while endorsing the longstanding precedent that congressional subpoenas must have a legislative purpose and without repudiating the notion that courts should not render judgments based on motives they impute to Congress, the opinion lays down principles which form a more or less objective test for determining whether material Congress seeks from a president is essential to a legislative task Congress is engaged in … Congress should be able to spell out in a subpoena why it needs the documents it seeks.”

Looking Ahead to What’s Next

There is a lot of information in these decisions to unpack, especially in relation to Congressional investigations and subpoenas.  Additionally, questions remain on how the lower courts may interpret Roberts’ directive to examine “congressional legislative purpose and whether it rises to the step of involving the President’s documents” and how Congress will “assess the burdens imposed on the President by a subpoena.

Copyright ©2020 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 203
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