The U.S. Supreme Court is issuing the final opinions of its current term today, with attention focused on three high-profile cases involving requests for President Donald Trump’s tax records and other financial documents by congressional committees and a New York prosecutor.
Trump, who went against the practice of modern presidential candidates by refusing to make his tax documents public while campaigning in 2016, has sought to block the release of those records and others related to his financial dealings.
In two combined cases, several House of Representatives committees issued subpoenas seeking the records from two banks, Capital One and Deutsche Bank, as well as the accounting firm Mazars USA.
The key issue justices are weighing in those cases is the separation of powers among the branches of the federal government and congressional power to investigate a president.
Trump lawyer Patrick Strawbridge said during oral arguments in May that the subpoenas served no substantial legislative purpose and that lawmakers should not be allowed to probe a president’s affairs with unlimited authority.
In ruling against Trump in December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District in New York said the committees had sufficiently identified their purposes.
"The Committees' interests in pursuing their constitutional legislative function is a far more significant public interest than whatever public interest inheres in avoiding the risk of a Chief Executive's distraction arising from disclosure of documents reflecting his private financial transactions,” Judge Jon O. Newman said in writing for the appeals court majority.
A lower court also ruled against Trump in the third case involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s request for financial records from Mazars as part of a grand jury investigation of alleged hush money payments to two women during the 2016 election.
Jay Sekulow, another Trump lawyer, argued before the Supreme Court in May that the president enjoys "temporary constitutional immunity" from prosecution while in office and that the New York district attorney has no authority to subpoena Trump.
Carey Dunne, the general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney, countered that presidents, while immune from criminal prosecution, are not excused from responding to a subpoena. In addition, Dunne said, the information his office is seeking predates Trump's presidential term and is not protected by executive privilege.
There "is a risk that American presidents and third parties unwittingly could end up above the law," Dunne said.
The Supreme Court has dealt with the question of whether a sitting president is required to comply with a legal request for documents in the past.
The court ruled unanimously against President Richard Nixon in 1973 in a case involving turning over White House audio tapes to a special prosecutor. Justices also issued a unanimous ruling against President Bill Clinton in 1997 allowing a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton to go forward.
The nine justices gave little indication during oral arguments which way they will decide the current cases, reflecting the need to balance competing interests among the branches of government.
In addition to ruling in favor of one side or the other, the justices could also decide to send either case back to the lower court for reconsideration.
While the lower court rulings against Trump came amid his impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power of which the Senate later acquitted him, the Supreme Court ruling comes with the nation months away from deciding whether to elect Trump to a second four-year term, or to put his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the White House.