On July 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, No. 19-715, holding that in assessing whether a congressional subpoena directed at personal information of the president is “related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress,” courts must carefully analyze the separation of powers principles at stake, including the significant legislative interests of Congress and the unique position of the president.
In April 2019, three committees of the House of Representatives issued subpoenas to various entities seeking information about the finances of President Donald Trump, his children, and affiliated businesses. The House asserted that the financial information that it sought would help guide legislative reform in areas such as money laundering, terrorism, and foreign involvement in U.S. elections.
The president challenged the subpoenas in two separate district courts, asserting that the House lacked a valid legislative purpose in issuing the subpoenas and did so only to harass him and expose personal matters, and that the subpoenas violated separation of powers principles. He asked the district courts to prevent the recipients of the subpoenas from complying with the subpoenas. (The president did not raise any claim of executive privilege.) The district courts rejected the president’s challenges and upheld the subpoenas. The D.C. Circuit and Second Circuit affirmed in 2-1 decisions, holding that the subpoenas served a “valid legislative purpose” because the requested information was relevant to reforming financial-disclosure requirements for presidents and presidential candidates and investigating alleged Russian interference with the U.S. political process.
The Supreme Court vacated the lower courts’ rulings and remanded the cases for further proceedings. The Court concluded that the lower courts did not take adequate account of the separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for personal information regarding the president. The Court began by noting that this is the first case involving congressional demands for presidential documents that the Court has had to decide, as previous congressional demands for such information have been resolved through negotiation and compromise between the two branches of government. The Court said that this history imposed on the Court a “duty of care” to ensure that the Court does not disturb the working arrangements that the legislative and executive branches have reached in the past.
The Court reaffirmed that Congress has the power to secure through subpoenas information that it needs in order to legislate. But because that power is justified by the needs of the legislative process, a congressional subpoena is valid only if it is “related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress” and serves a “valid legislative purpose.” Congress cannot issue a subpoena for law-enforcement purposes because those powers are assigned to the executive and the U.S. judiciary. And Congress cannot issue a subpoena simply to inquire into private affairs out of curiosity or the desire for exposure of information.
The Court also acknowledged that congressional subpoenas directed to the executive raise separation of powers concerns that do not exist with other congressional subpoenas. Such subpoenas “represent … a clash between rival branches of government over records of intense political interest for all involved.” The Court rejected as too weak the House’s argument that Congress need show only that a subpoena directed to presidential information relates to a valid legislative purpose or concerns a subject on which Congress could legislate, concluding that such a standard could allow Congress to “aggrandize itself at the President’s expense.” But the Court also rejected as too demanding the president’s argument that Congress should have to establish a “demonstrated, specific need” for the information that is “demonstrably critical” to its legislative purpose. Those standards, the Court noted, were based on cases in which the president asserted executive privilege in response to a subpoena directed at information generated in the course of the president’s duties, while the subpoenas here were directed at personal information of the president with no claim of executive privilege.
The Court concluded that “[a] balanced approach is necessary.” Thus, the Court held that “in assessing whether a subpoena directed at the President’s personal information is ‘related to, and in furtherance of a legitimate task of the Congress,’ courts must perform a careful analysis that takes adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the ‘unique position’ of the President.” The Court set out several considerations that courts should consider in such situations, including: (1) whether the asserted legislative purpose justified involving presidential papers or whether Congress could obtain the same information from other sources, (2) limiting the scope of the subpoena to be “no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective,” (3) the strength of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that the subpoena serves a valid legislative purpose, and (4) carefully assessing the burdens that the subpoena —issued by “a rival political branch” — imposes on the president.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justices Thomas and Alito filed dissenting opinions.