Supreme Court says Manhattan DA can get Trump's tax records, but rejects bid by House Democrats

Key Points
  • The Supreme Court delivered split opinions in two cases over whether President Trump can shield his tax records from investigators.
  • It handed a win to the Manhattan district attorney but rejected efforts by House Democrats. 
  • Both cases were decided 7-2, with Chief Justice John Roberts authoring the court's opinions.
  • Both cases are subject to further review by lower courts.
  • The mixed rulings make it unlikely voters will learn about Trump's financial records before November's election.
Supreme Court says Manhattan district attorney can get Trump tax records

The Supreme Court on Thursday delivered split opinions in two cases over whether President Donald Trump can shield his tax records from investigators, handing a win to the Manhattan district attorney but rejecting efforts by House Democrats. 

Both cases were decided 7-2, with Chief Justice John Roberts authoring the court's opinions and joined in the majority by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented in both cases.

Both cases are subject to further review by lower courts. The justices rejected the president's claims that he was immune from state criminal subpoenas in the New York case. In the congressional case, they wiped away rulings in favor of House Democrats, ordering lower courts to more carefully consider concerns about the separation of powers.

The mixed rulings mean the American public is unlikely to learn about Trump's financial records or tax information before November's election. It is not clear when the lower courts may ultimately resolve the matter. 

The decisions mark the first time that the nation's highest court has directly ruled on a matter involving Trump's personal dealings. Trump has been more secretive with his finances than any president in decades, refusing to release his tax records to the public even as he mounts a bid for reelection. 

The cases were decided on the final day of the Supreme Court's term, which began last October and was extended past its typical end-of-June conclusion as a result of precautions taken against the spreading coronavirus.

"In our judicial system, 'the public has a right to every man's evidence.' Since the earliest days of the Republic, 'every man' has included the President of the United States," Roberts wrote in the New York case.

The New York case stems from an investigation being pursued by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. Vance issued a subpoena to Trump's longtime accounting firm, Mazars, for a wide variety of Trump's personal and business records, including tax returns, dating to 2011. 

Vance's office is investigating the hush money payments that Trump allegedly facilitated to two women ahead of the 2016 election, though the purpose for his subpoenas is relatively opaque. 

The women have claimed to have had sexual relationships with the president that he has denied. Vance hasn't said whether Trump is a suspect in his investigation, and he has not indicated any potential charges. 

Trump's attorneys had pushed for an expansive view of presidential immunity in the case. 

In one lower court hearing in New York, an attorney for the president said Trump would theoretically be immune from investigation even if he shot someone on New York's Fifth Avenue. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."

In a statement, Vance called Thursday's decision "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. 

Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump, said in a statement that "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 said. 

Despite Sekulow's guarded optimism, it was clear from Trump's response that the president did not see the rulings as victories.

"Now the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given for another President. This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT. We catch the other side SPYING on my campaign, the biggest political crime and scandal in U.S. history, and NOTHING HAPPENS. But despite this, I have done more than any President in history in first 3 1/2 years!" Trump wrote in a series of posts on Twitter.

"Courts in the past have given 'broad deference'. BUT NOT ME!" Trump added. 

trump tweet

Mazars USA spokesperson Ian Duncan said in a statement that the firm was "reviewing the decision in its entirety to fully understand our obligations."

"As previously noted, Mazars USA fully intends to comply with its legal obligations," Duncan said. 

In his dissent, Alito wrote that the majority'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."

Thomas wrote in dissent that he agreed with the majority that presidents do not have absolute immunity from criminal subpoenas, but that he would have erased the lower court win for Vance and instructed the lower court to determine whether the subpoena should be blocked on the basis that it would interfere with Trump's duties.

The congressional cases involved subpoenas issued by Democratic-led committees of the House of Representatives, which sought financial records from Mazars as well as his banks, Capital One and Deutsche Bank. The committees said they needed the information to inform potential legislation, and as part of ongoing investigations. 

"This case is different," Roberts wrote in the opinion, which was handed down shortly after the one in the New York case. "Here the President's information is sought not by prosecutors or private parties in connection with a particular judicial proceeding, but by committees of Congress that have set forth broad legislative objectives."

"Congress and the President—the two political branches established by the Constitution—have an ongoing relationship that the Framers intended to feature both rivalry and reciprocity," Roberts wrote. 

The House Oversight Committee sought the information in connection with investigations into claims made by the president's former lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump inflated and deflated his assets to suit his needs. 

The oversight panel is also investigating Trump's failure to list on his 2017 disclosure form $130,000 that he owed to Cohen to reimburse him for a hush money payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The Office of Government Ethics has said Trump should have listed the debt as a liability. 

The financial services and intelligence committees issued two separate subpoenas to Deutsche Bank seeking information on the president and members of his family, including his children Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump. A third subpoena, from the financial services committee, asked Capital One for a wide variety of information on 15 Trump businesses. 

The financial services committee is investigating potential foreign money laundering. Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has said his committee's investigation entails uncovering whether "any foreign actor has sought to compromise or holds leverage, financial or otherwise, over Donald Trump, his family, his business, or his associates."

Roberts wrote that the subpoenas raised grave concerns about the Constitution's separation of powers that the lower courts did not fully consider when they handed victories to Congress.

"Without limits on its subpoena powers, Congress could 'exert an imperious control' over the Executive Branch and aggrandize itself at the President's expense, just as the Framers feared," Roberts wrote. "And a limitless subpoena power would transform the "established practice" of the political branches."

Roberts wrote that the fact that the subpoenas were issued to third parties, rather than the president himself, and asked for personal documents, did not significantly diminish the constitutional hurdles. 

"Congressional demands for the President's information present an interbranch conflict no matter where the information is held — it is, after all, the President's information," Roberts wrote. "Were it otherwise, Congress could sidestep constitutional requirements any time a President's information is entrusted to a third party — as occurs with rapidly increasing frequency."

He added that because the president "is the only person who alone composes a branch of government," there is not always "a clear line between his personal and official affairs."

Thomas dissented, saying he would hold that Congress has no power to issue a subpoena related to potential legislation "for private, nonofficial documents — whether they belong to the President or not."

"Congress may be able to obtain these documents as part of an investigation of the President, but to do so, it must proceed under the impeachment power," Thomas wrote. 

Alito said he wouldn't assume that such subpoenas are always unlawful, but that that they are "inherently suspicious."

He said he agreed that lower courts should have to more carefully weigh separation of powers concerns, but argued that the majority did not go far enough. 

"Specifically, the House should provide a description of the type of legislation being considered, and while great specificity is not necessary, the description should be sufficient to permit a court to assess whether the particular records sought are of any special importance," Alito wrote. 

Schiff said in a statement that the Supreme Court's ruling "will serve to delay the Committee's investigation — and, given the risk of foreign influence over this President, such delay is dangerous."

"But we remain confident that we will ultimately prevail. And in light of the President's tweets this morning, he appears to believe the same," Schiff said. 

Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading legal scholar and the dean of Berkeley Law, said the immediate effect of the rulings was that it was "unlikely that either will be resolved soon or provide access to President Trump's tax returns before the November election."

"The longer term impact is to help provide accountability for the president," Chemerinsky said. "If the Court had accepted President Trump's claim of broad immunity from subpoenas, it truly would have put the president above the law."

The consolidated congressional cases are Trump v. Mazars, No. 19-715 and Trump v. Deutsche Bank, No. 19-760. The New York case is Trump v. Vance, No. 19-635. 

-- CNBC's Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.