Thursday, July 9, 2020
The Supreme Court ruled today that a state grand jury is not categorically prohibited from issuing a subpoena for the President's taxes and financial records. But the ruling leaves open the possibility that the President could argue that the subpoena violates state law, or that a particular subpoena, including this one, violates the separation of powers.
Because of that last bit, the ruling means that the grand jury probably won't get its hands on President Trump's taxes anytime soon. That's because the President is almost sure to pitch these arguments in state or federal court, and the litigation will likely take some time. That means that the ruling is likely a short-term win for the President.
But at the same time, the ruling is a dramatic loss for the presidency. That's because the Court unconditionally rejected the President's sweeping and categorical claim of absolute immunity against state criminal processes. President Trump overargued this, as did the DOJ, and the Court reined him in.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Kavanaugh wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas dissented, and Justice Alito dissented.
The Court held that Presidents long lacked immunity from federal criminal subpoenas, going all the way back to the Burr trial. It ruled that there's nothing different about a state criminal subpoena that would categorically immunize the President (as the president argued), or even raise the bar for a presidential subpoena (as DOJ argued). In particular, the Court rejected the President's claims that a state grand jury subpoena could divert the President's attention, stigmatize the President (and undermine his leadership), and harass the President in violation of federalism principles. It similarly rejected DOJ's similar reasons for a higher bar for presidential subpoenas.
The Court nevertheless left open the possibility that the President (like anybody else) could challenge a state grand jury subpoena under state law, like law that bans bad faith subpoenas or those that create an undue burden. It also left open the possibility that the President could challenge a specific subpoena on the basis that a particular subpoena unduly interfered with his duties as President. (The problem in this case was that the President claimed a categorical immunity from state subpoenas.) The President will probably take up these claims now, leading to yet another round of litigation, and probably preventing the grand jury from getting the documents and records anytime soon.
Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in the judgment but wrote separately to underscore that there may be state law or constitutional problems with this particular subpoena, depending on how the courts balance out the competing interests of the state courts and the President.
Justice Thomas dissented, agreeing with the majority that the President isn't categorically immune from the grand jury's issuance of the subpoena, but that he might be immune from the enforcement of it.
Justice Alito dissented, too, agreeing that the President isn't categorically immune, but arguing for a heightened standard, given the nature of the Presidency and the federalism system.