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Supreme Court says President Trump cannot keep tax, financial records from prosecutors

by Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Donald Trump cannot keep his tax returns and financial records away from a New York City prosecutor pursuing possible hush-money payments.

At the same time, the court temporarily blocked congressional investigators from gaining access to many of the same records. It sent the effort by House Democrats back to a lower court for further review of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Both 7-2 decisions were written by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Trump’s two nominees, Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The court’s two other conservatives, Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented.

The landmark rulings carry political as well as legal and constitutional implications for the president, Congress and law enforcement officials who have argued the records could reveal evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our court established that no citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Roberts wrote. “We 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.”

Kavanaugh and Gorsuch did not join the majority opinion’s reasoning. Kavanaugh wrote separately for the duo, stressing that Trump’s lawyers still can raise new arguments at the district court level.

“In our system of government, as this court has often stated, no one is above the law,” Kavanaugh said. “That principle applies, of course, to a president.”

In dissent, Thomas said the New York case should be returned to lower courts to determine if Trump’s duties as president should preclude compliance with the subpoena. Alito was more adamant that it should be struck down.

“The subpoena at issue here is unprecedented,” Alito said. “Never before has a local prosecutor subpoenaed the records of a sitting president. The court’s decision threatens to impair the functioning of the presidency and provides no real protection against the use of the subpoena power by the nation’s 2,300+ local prosecutors.”

Trump, acting through his personal legal team, has refused to comply with the subpoenas from the Manhattan district attorney seeking information from his accountant and bankers.

“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,” Vance said Thursday. “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.”

These are the most important decisions before the Supreme Court this year.

During oral arguments held by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, conservative and liberal justices alike wondered how to balance investigators’ need for evidence against the president’s claim that he must be free from distracting, even harassing, probes.

In previous battles over documents or testimony, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1997, with their nominees in agreement. The decisions led eventually to Nixon’s resignation and Clinton’s impeachment, though he was not ultimately removed from office by the Senate.

Vance’s subpoenas came as part of a criminal probe of alleged hush-money payments that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, said were made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both women claimed they had affairs with Trump, which he has denied. Two lower courts upheld the subpoenas.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that the president has absolute immunity while in office from grand jury investigations of criminal conduct. During oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, they contended Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and escape prosecution until he leaves office.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court: Prosecutor Cy Vance can get Donald Trump’s tax records


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