SCOTUS Issues Landmark Decision on President Trump’s Financial Records
In Trump v. Vance, 591 U. S. ____ (2020), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Donald Trump is not immune to state subpoenas for his financial records. By a vote of 7-2, the Court held that Article II and the supremacy clause of the Constitution do not categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting president. “In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.”
Facts of the Case
In 2019, the New York County District Attorney’s Office — acting on behalf of a grand jury — served a subpoena duces tecum on Mazars USA, LLP, the personal accounting firm of President Donald J. Trump, for financial records relating to the President and his businesses. The President, acting in his personal capacity, sued the district attorney and Mazars in Federal District Court to enjoin enforcement of the subpoena, arguing that a sitting President enjoys absolute immunity from state criminal process under Article II and the Supremacy Clause.
The District Court dismissed the case under the abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and, in the alternative, held that the President was not entitled to injunctive relief. The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s dismissal under Younger but agreed with the court’s denial of injunctive relief, concluding that presidential immunity did not bar enforcement of the subpoena and rejecting the argument of the United States as amicus curiae that a state grand jury subpoena seeking the President’s documents must satisfy a heightened showing of need.
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court held that Trump’s financial records may be subpoenaed by the New York district attorney’s office.Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of the Court.
In reaching its decision, the Court cited United States v. Burr, in which Chief Justice John Marshall, presiding as Circuit Justice for Virginia over the treason trial of Aaron Burr, granted Burr’s motion for a subpoena duces tecum directed at President Thomas Jefferson after concluding that the Chief Executive is not immune to subpoenas. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:
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. 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. The “guard[ ] furnished to this high officer” lies where it always has—in “the conduct of a court” applying established legal and constitutional principles to individual subpoenas in a manner that preserves both the independence of the Executive and the integrity of the criminal justice system.
The Court went on to reject President Trump’s argument that the Supremacy Clause gives a sitting President absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas because compliance with those subpoenas would categorically impair a President’s performance of his Article II functions. According to the Court, the three burdens identified by the President — diversion, stigma, and harassment — did not necessitate absolute immunity. According to the Court, “two centuries of experience confirm that a properly tailored criminal subpoena will not normally hamper the performance of the President’s constitutional duties.”
The Supreme Court also rejected the Solicitor General’s contention that a state grand jury subpoena for a sitting President’s personal records must, at the very least, “satisfy a heightened standard of need.” According to the Court, a state grand jury subpoena seeking a President’s private papers need not satisfy a heightened need standard, for three reasons.
While the Court acknowledged that a President can’t be treated as an “ordinary individual” when executive communications are sought, it further noted that Burr establishes that, with regard to private papers, a President stands in “nearly the same situation with any other individual.” The Court went on to conclude that there had been no showing that heightened protection against state subpoenas is necessary for the Executive to fulfill his Article II functions. Finally, the Court found that absent a need to protect the Executive, the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence.
The Court highlighted that rejecting a heightened need standard does not leave Presidents without recourse. The Chief Justice wrote:
[A]lthough the Constitution does not entitle the Executive to absolute immunity or a heightened standard, he is not “relegate[d]” only to the challenges available to private citizens. Post, at 17 (opinion of ALITO, J.). A President can raise subpoena-specific constitutional challenges, in either a state or federal forum. As previously noted, he can challenge the subpoena as an attempt to in- fluence the performance of his official duties, in violation of the Supremacy Clause…In addition, the Executive can—as the district attorney concedes—argue that compliance with a particular subpoena would impede his constitutional duties.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.