Will the Supreme Court Force Trump to Release His Tax Returns?

Supreme Court

Getty The U.S. Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2020.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on May 12 to determine whether Congress can subpoena President Donald Trump’s personal tax records in order to investigate potential wrongdoing on the part of the president. A similar case regarding subpoenas issued by prosecutors in New York will be heard subsequent to this case.

Two different committees in the U.S. House of Representatives issued an array of subpoenas relating to the president’s financial records after Michael Cohen’s testimony that Trump paid hush money to two women to cover up extramarital affairs. Prosecutors in New York issued a series of subpoenas with a much smaller scope relating to Cohen’s testimony.

Here’s what you need to know:


Previous Supreme Court Cases Establish a Precedent That Does Not Bode Well For Trump

During the arguments on May 12, the justices referenced a number of cases that establish a precedent relating to presidential privilege, including United States v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones. In the former, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed now-infamous tapes relating to the Watergate scandal. After President Richard Nixon released redacted transcripts of the tapes, citing executive privilege and national security, counsel in the Watergate scandal appealed to the Supreme Court. The case was decided in 1974 by a vote of 8-0 in favor of the United States, and the tapes were turned over to the House Judiciary Committee.

In 1997, Bill Clinton was accused of committing sexual assault during his tenure as the governor of Arkansas by Paula Jones, prompting a legal battle that landed on the steps of America’s highest court. Clinton v. Jones established, with a unanimous vote of 9-0, that sitting presidents were not exempt from civil litigation nor would that litigation be delayed until after a president has left office. In the May 12 proceedings, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg went so far as to ask the defendant, “How’d that work out in the Paula Jones case?”


Some Components of Trump’s Case Differ From Previous Cases

In the matter of personal tax records, Trump’s lawyers have pointed out that Congress has not previously issued a subpoena for the personal financial documents of a president. That may be in part because the last six presidents before Trump all voluntarily released their tax records, according to CNN.

Trump’s financial records were subpoenaed by individual committees and not voted on by the entirety of the House. In and of itself, that procedural detail is not unprecedented — the Watergate tapes were subpoenaed by a committee rather than the entire House. A mandatory full-House vote would put a greater burden on House-issued subpoenas. However, the Justice Department has suggested that the Supreme Court could “invalidat[e] the subpoenas on the threshold ground that they were not authorized by the full House,” CNN reported.


The Roberts Court Has Overturned Precedent In The Past

The Supreme Court will decide whether this case falls within the purview of the established precedent and, if so, whether to follow or overturn that precedent. The Supreme Court has overturned precedent in the past; most notably, in 1954, the Warren Court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, establishing that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in the landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education.

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has overturned precedent across a number of issue areas, including gun rights and campaign finance. Now famous, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned more than a century of campaign finance precedent to give corporations more influence in American elections despite a chorus of protest from the liberal wing of the court, which feared that the ruling would open the United States to undue election interference from abroad.

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