House Democrats ask Supreme Court to reject Trump's bid to keep financial records secret

Key Points
  • The House Oversight Committee has argued that it needs Trump's financial records to assess whether new ethics in government legislation is needed.
  • The chief justice this week temporarily halted a lower court decision that would have required the president's accountants to turn over his records to the committee.
L-R) House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Oversight and Government Reform Committee Acting Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) hold a news conference following the passage of a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry centered on U.S. President Donald Trump October 31, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

House Democrats asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to reject an appeal by President Donald Trump to shield his personal and business financial records from Congress.

The filing is the latest volley in a historic back-and-forth that could ultimately determine whether the public ever sees Trump's detailed finances and settle weighty questions about the Constitution's separation of powers.

Chief Justice John Roberts on Monday temporarily halted an appellate decision that would have required the president's accountants to turn over his records to the House Oversight Committee in response to a subpoena. Roberts gave Democrats until Thursday afternoon to respond. 

In their filing, Democrats asked for Roberts to allow the subpoena to go into effect.

"Applicants ask this Court to halt the functions of a coordinate branch of government by restraining a valid Congressional inquiry and quashing a subpoena issued to a private accounting firm," Douglas Letter, an attorney for House Democrats, wrote in the filing. "That request should be denied."

Trump's personal attorneys have argued that allowing the committee to access his financial records could set a precedent that would saddle presidents with burdensome demands for documents and information from a co-equal branch of government.

But the committee has argued that it needs Trump's records to assess whether new ethics in government legislation is needed.

The committee's April subpoena to the president's accounting firm, Mazars USA, was prompted among other things by testimony from the president's former fixer Michael Cohen who alleged that the president inflated and deflated his assets improperly, which Trump has denied.

The subpoena specifically asks for all "statements of financial condition, annual statements, periodic financial reports, and independent auditors' reports prepared, compiled, reviewed, or audited" by Mazars.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with the committee in October in a 2-1 vote, ruling that the subpoena could be enforced.

"Faithfully applying this Court's precedents addressing Congressional subpoenas, two levels of the federal judiciary have upheld that subpoena as valid and enforceable," Letter wrote in Thursday's filing. "Each concluded that the Committee issued the subpoena in furtherance of a valid legislative purpose and that the subpoena seeks documents relevant to a subject about which Congress could enact legislation."

The president is the first in more than four decades not to make his tax returns public voluntarily and has fought vigorously to keep them private. In a tweet early Thursday, Trump said he would release a "financial statement" prior to the election that "will only show one thing — that I am much richer than people even thought."

Trump tweet

The Supreme Court may now vote to grant or reject the president's request to review the lower court ruling. It takes four justices to vote to hear a case.

If the court decides to grant the case, Democrats asked that it do so this term, which ends in June.

If the court rejects the case, then the lower court order will remain in effect and the president's accountants will be required to turn over his records.

Experts expect that the court will agree to hear the case, but the final outcome is unpredictable. The nine-member court has five Republican appointees, including Trump picks Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The justices will meet for a private conference on Friday, where it's likely they will discuss the matter.

The court is also weighing a separate appeal by the president to overturn a lower court order from New York. That ruling, by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would require Trump's accountants to turn over his tax returns to state prosecutors.

Other similar challenges appear on their way to the justices. In July, the House Ways and Means Committee sued the Treasury Department and the IRS seeking the president's tax returns. That case remains at an early stage of litigation.