SCOTUS Punts on Trump Tax Returns

The non-decision ensures that the issue will drag on past election day.

Thomas Gallatin · Jul. 10, 2020

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court chose to avoid weighing in on the highly contentious and politically charged fight over President Donald Trump’s tax returns, and instead opted to throw the case back down to the lower courts.

Writing the majority opinion in the 7-2 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the president “is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” and that state prosecutors will need to provide evidence of a “heightened need” in order to compel Trump to turn over his tax records.

Both sides sought to claim victory, with Trump counsel Jay Sekulow straining to put a positive spin on things. “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 tax records. We will now proceed to raise the additional Constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”

The president, however, was clearly not happy. “PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT!” he tweeted. “The Supreme Court sends case back to Lower Court, arguments to continue. This is all a political prosecution. I won the Mueller Witch Hunt, and others, and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration! Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!”

In fact, the two dissenting justices were Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, with the latter agreeing with Trump that the Democrats’ demands for his tax records smacked of suspect and political motivations. “Legislative subpoenas for a President’s personal documents are inherently suspicious,” Alito opined, adding that such documents “are seldom of any specific value in considering potential legislation.”

Furthermore, Alito writes, “It is not enough to recite sayings like ‘no man is above the law’ and ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence.’ These sayings are true — and important — but they beg the question. The law applies equally to all persons, including a person who happens for a period of time to occupy the Presidency. But there is no question that the nature of the office demands in some instances that the application of laws be adjusted at least until the person’s term in office ends. … A President is an easily identifiable target, and there are more than 2,300 local prosecutors and district attorneys in the country. Many local prosecutors are elected, and many prosecutors have ambitions for higher elected office.”

The biggest problem with these rulings is the precedent it sets. As The Wall Street Journal argues, “The real import of the rulings is that the Supreme Court has weakened the Presidency by opening the gates to harassment by Congress and especially local prosecutors.”

The good news for Trump is that this fight will remain tied up in the courts, thus preventing Democrats from getting their hands on his tax records until well after the election.

Finally, as our Mark Alexander contends, “We don’t need to see a tax return from a billionaire who became president and gives his salary away. We want to see the tax returns of Demo politicians who became millionaires.”

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