“Sorry Mr. President, you are not above the law”: Supreme Court rules against Trump

July 21, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has ruled on the legality of demanding access to President Trump’s financial records in two separate cases.

What does this mean?

On 9 July 2020, SCOTUS released its verdict on two related, but distinct cases. The first case was initially brought by a New York State prosecutor (Trump v. Vance), the second by Congress (Trump v. Mazars USA). Both respondents had at first instance applied for the release of President Trump’s financial records. They attempted to do this through issuing a subpoena, a court order forcing the recipient to submit court evidence.

In opposition to Vance, Trump’s legal team had argued that the President is entitled to “absolute immunity” from any form of criminal investigation whilst in office. The argument refers to the precedent set by the Nixon v. Fitzgerald SCOTUS ruling in 1982. At the time, the judgment determined that President Richard Nixon was entitled to immunity from litigation for acts directly associated with his position as head of state. These arguments were decisively rejected by the Court. Their 7-2 majority decision against the President outlined that not even the President “is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding”.

Legally, both outcomes were a loss for Trump as his financial records may still be handed over. That being said, SCOTUS has not ordered anyone to surrender the records, or not yet anyway. Instead, they sent both cases back to lower courts for review. Politically therefore, Trump arguably won. This is because the two judgments make it unlikely the records will be accessible to the public, the legislature or a court before the October 2020 Presidential election, if at all.

What's the big picture effect?

The issue of secrecy surrounding Trump’s financial records has drawn debate over the right to privacy of public figures in the United States, especially in the lead up to the 2020 election. There is concern surrounding the President’s insistence on keeping his financial records hidden. Speculation ranges from accusations of conflicts of interest and corruption to the wilful deception of the American public. His monetary connections with Russia are another common point of contention. 

The refusal of a modern-day President to publish their tax returns is unprecedented. Every elected President since 1974 has voluntarily issued their tax returns for the years they held office. It is also surprising given Trump promised to do so in the past. It is however not illegal. The privacy of American citizens, including that of the President, is safeguarded by American law. In regard to taxation, Section 6103 of the American tax code assures the confidentiality of citizens’ tax returns. Resultantly, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the institution responsible for collecting public taxation revenue in the United States, is legally obligated to withhold and protect the data of American citizens. It is barred from releasing any taxpayer information, except under clearly defined circumstances to authorised agencies and individuals.

If Trump wins these cases after the court review endorsed in these judgments, his financial records may still become publicly available in the future. Section 6103(f)(1) of the American tax code reserves the right of congressional tax committees to request and obtain any given tax return from the IRS. One such committee, following the defiance of a request to obtain the President’s financial records, is currently suing the United States Treasury to gain access. If successful, the records will be made available for legislative scrutiny. Given the leaky nature of Congress, it is likely they would be subsequently released to the public.

Importantly, SCOTUS has ruled that no one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law. The Court has decisively cast aside the claim that, by virtue of political rank, any US President has the right to “absolute immunity” from legal prosecution for their actions. The question now is whether alleged culpability will equate to successful prosecution.

Report written by George Maxwell

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