Tue, 04 Aug 2020

WASHINGTON - In the wake of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on President Donald Trump's refusal to release his financial records, a debate is raging about whether the landmark decisions represent a win or a loss for Trump.

The rulings on Thursday all but ensure that Trump's tax returns and other closely guarded records won't be released - and potentially used by his political rivals - before the contentious November 3 presidential election.

But the high court's decisions also amount to a repudiation of Trump's long-standing claim of immunity from subpoenas for his personal information and his expansive views of presidential authority.

Here are three things you need to know about the court's 7-2 decisions:

No one is above the law

In the first case, known as Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court essentially reaffirmed a long-standing principle that no one - the president included - is immune from the criminal process.

The case concerned a subpoena issued by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance for eight years of financial records of Trump, a multibillionaire former New York real estate developer. Vance is supervising a grand jury investigation of Trump's business dealings and whether the Trump Organization falsified business records to conceal the payment of hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump years ago - assertions the president has denied.

Vance's subpoena marked the first time a local prosecutor has issued a request for a sitting president's personal papers.

Trump's lawyers went to court to block the subpoena. Claiming that Trump enjoyed "absolute immunity" from criminal investigations by a local prosecutor, they argued that enforcing the subpoena would harass and distract him from his duties and tarnish his reputation.

But Chief Justice John Roberts, citing more than 200 years of precedent, rejected the assertion.

"In our judicial system, the public has a right to every man's evidence," Roberts wrote on behalf of the court, citing an old maxim.

Roberts also rejected the claim that a higher standard is needed when a president is subpoenaed. But he said that the president, like every other citizen, has the right to challenge the subpoena in court.

Paul J. Larkin, a former Justice Department official who is now a senior legal research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the ruling amounts to a "reaffirmation of presidential accountability."

"What they said was this has always been the rule with respect to federal cases, and we don't see a reason for a different rule to apply just because it's a state case," Larkin said.

Congressional subpoena power is not unbounded

In the second case, known as Trump v. Mazars, the court struck a middle ground, ruling that while Congress has the power to subpoena the president, that authority is not "limitless."

At issue in this case were four subpoenas issued last year by three House of Representatives committees for Trump's financial records. The committees claimed the information was needed as part of their investigations of Trump and efforts to craft new legislation.

The high court has long recognized Congress' constitutional authority to issue subpoenas. However, it had never before waded into a dispute between Congress and the executive branch over a subpoena for the president's personal tax returns and records.

Here the justices threaded a needle between Congress' need to investigate and the executive branch's interests. While reaffirming Congress' investigative power, they held that the four House subpoenas placed "separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the 'unique position' of the President."

To resolve these issues, the high court asked that lower courts consider at least four factors in weighing the validity of a subpoena, including ensuring that a request for documents is "no broader than reasonably necessary" and that it does not impose undue "burdens" on the president.

"The way I think about it is, Congress just can't say, 'We're passing legislation' or 'We're thinking of legislation.' They've got to say more," said Sai Prakash, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Where do we go from here?

The disputes head back to the lower courts in New York and Washington, D.C. The outcome is uncertain, and a final verdict could come down either way. Trump may prevail in both cases if his lawyers mount a successful challenge to the Vance subpoena and ward off House efforts in the congressional case. On the other hand, lawyers for House Democrats may get one or more of their subpoenas approved after recrafting them to meet the criteria laid out by the high court.

Alternatively, the two parties could engage in negotiations to reach a compromise. That would be the court's preference, given the justices' aversion to getting drawn into political disputes between Congress and the president.

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