Prosecutors in New York can demand the release of President Trump’s income tax returns and financial records for an investigation of hush money payments, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The court also said Congress may seek the documents but has not yet provided an adequate justification for doing so.
“In our judicial system, the public has a right to every man’s evidence,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the 7-2 ruling in the New York case, issued on the final day of the court’s term. “Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the president of the United States.”
While ruling that Trump is not immune from a subpoena by a state grand jury for the financial records, the court did not require immediate compliance, instead returning the case to a lower court in New York to consider any additional arguments from the president’s lawyers. And any documents Trump is required to produce would be shielded from public view by grand jury secrecy — in contrast to Congress, which could make the records public if it obtained them.
But the ruling — joined by both of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — was a stinging rebuke to the first president in more than 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns.
The public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence,” Roberts said.
Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito said the ruling in the New York case “threatens to impair the functioning of the presidency and provides no real protection against the use of the subpoena power by the nation’s 2,300+ local prosecutors.”
Nan Aron, president of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice, said, “It’s now up to the lower courts to properly enforce these decisions to hold this president accountable for violating the law. Trump’s delay tactics won’t protect him forever.”
Ilya Shapiro, constitutional law director at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the court properly ruled that “the president isn’t above the law, even state law, but he can certainly raise defenses specific to his constitutional duties (if he has any).”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has sought nearly 10 years of business and personal tax records from the president’s accounting firm, Mazars, for a grand jury investigation of possible crimes committed in the payment of hush money to two women who said they had affairs with Trump years ago.
Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, has said Trump repaid him $130,000 for the payment to Stephanie Clifford, a former pornographic film star who performed as Stormy Daniels, and $150,000 to reimburse the National Enquirer for a hush payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Trump has denied the relationships but has not said why he would have paid the women for their silence. He acknowledged the $130,000 payment to Clifford on Twitter in 2018.
His lawyers argued that the president was legally immune from grand jury subpoenas while in office. But Vance’s office said the Supreme Court had rejected that argument in 1997 when it unanimously denied immunity to President Bill Clinton from a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones, a state employee in Arkansas while Clinton was the state’s governor. Clinton settled the suit for $850,000 in 1998.
Grand jury investigations are confidential. But as a criminal case proceeds, prosecutors can sometimes make grand jury evidence public in court filings.