July 09, 2020

Supreme Court Decides Trump v. Vance

On July 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Trump v. Vance, No. 19-635, holding that President Donald Trump was required to respond to a state subpoena of his tax returns and other financial information because “Article II and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution do not categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President.”

The case arose out of the New York County district attorney’s investigation into President Trump. The district attorney served a subpoena duces tecum on President Trump’s personal accounting firm — Mazars USA LLP — seeking President Trump’s financial records, including his tax returns since 2011. The president sought an injunction against the subpoena in federal court, claiming he was immune from state criminal process under Article II and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. The district court abstained under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and ruled in the alternative that President Trump was not entitled to injunctive relief. President Trump appealed and the Second Circuit held that, while Younger abstention was not appropriate, the president was still not entitled to injunctive relief.

The Supreme Court affirmed and remanded for further proceedings, holding that President Trump was not precluded from answering the subpoena because it was barred by or subject to a heightened standard under Article II and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.

In reaching its decision, the Court noted that for over 200 years, it has generally held that “federal criminal subpoenas do not ‘rise to the level of constitutionally forbidden impairment of the Executive’s ability to perform its constitutionally mandated functions.’” The Court held that the same logic applies to state criminal subpoenas. It first addressed President Trump’s argument that the Article II and the Supremacy Clause give him absolute immunity against the subpoena. The Court rejected this argument because the subpoena alone is unlikely to cause significant distraction or stigmatization, and there are sufficient safeguards against the possibility of harassment.

The Court also rejected President Trump’s argument that the subpoena is subject to a “heightened need standard.” This standard would require a showing that “the evidence sought is ‘critical’ for ‘specific charging decisions’ and that the subpoena is a ‘last resort,’ meaning the evidence is ‘not available any other source’ and is needed ‘now, rather than at the end of the President’s term.’” The Court rejected this argument because (1) Court precedent does not include a heightened standard for personal, rather than official, documents, (2) the heightened standard is not “necessary for the Executive to fulfill his Article II functions,” and (3) “the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence.”

Finally, the Court rejected President Trump’s argument that rejecting a heightened need standard leaves a president with “no real protection.” It noted that a president may use the same protections available to any citizen: challenging a subpoena on any grounds permitted under state law, such as bad faith or undue burden and breadth. A president may also raise subpoena-specific constitutional challenges in state or federal courts, arguing that it is an attempt to influence the performance of his official duties or would impede his constitutional duties.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Kavanaugh filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justices Thomas and Alito each filed dissenting opinions.

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