In Trump Financial Records Case, Supreme Court Offers Standards for Seeking Presidential Documents

By Aryana Swanson

In a July decision, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed a congressional request for President Trump’s financial records, remanding the Trump v. Mazars USA case back to the D.C. Circuit court and issuing a “balancing test” for similar subpoenas. Trump is suing Mazars to prevent them from complying with an April subpoena from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, demanding private financial records that belong to the president and several affiliated businesses.

Trump’s attorneys said that the subpoena violated the separation of powers and did not have a “legitimate legislative purpose.” They did not argue that executive privilege protected any of the requested financial records.

The District Court had granted judgement for the House and the D.C. Circuit affirmed, finding, in the word of the Supreme Court decision “that the subpoena issued by the Oversight Committee served a valid legislative purpose because the requested information was relevant to reforming financial disclosure requirements for Presidents and presidential candidates.” (591 U. S. __ (2020)).

In the July 9th decision, the high court voted 7-2 to issue a “balancing” test for congressional subpoenas involving a sitting president. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion. He wrote that each House of Congress has the power “to secure needed information” in order to legislate. This power is “indispensable” because, without information, “Congress would be unable to legislate wisely or effectively.” A congressional subpoena is “valid only if it is related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of Congress” (591 U. S. __ (2020)).

The four-factor balancing test issued by the court says that:

(1) “Courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President’s information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs;”

(2) “To narrow the scope of possible conflict between the branches, courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective;”

(3) “Courts should be attentive to the nature of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. The more detailed and substantial, the better;” and

(4) “Courts should assess the burdens imposed on the President by a subpoena, particularly because they stem from a rival political branch that has an ongoing relationship with the President. Other considerations may be pertinent as well” (591 U. S. __ (2020)).

The majority held that the lower courts “did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information” (591 U. S. __ (2020)). The Court vacated the lower court judgements and remanded. Justice John Roberts added that this dispute is the first of its kind to reach the Court, as historically these disputes have been resolved through negotiations between the Executive and Legislative branches.

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito both issued dissenting opinions. Justice Thomas wrote that congressional subpoenas concerning private, unofficial documents should be categorically barred. Justice Alito, on the other hand, wrote that these subpoenas could stand in narrow circumstances. He wrote that in this specific case the House did not satisfy the balancing test put forth by the majority and that the House would have to be required to show more than it already has to prove the subpoena’s necessity.