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Supreme Court hears arguments on releasing Trump’s financial records

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/12/2020 Adam Liptak

WASHINGTON — The very nature of the presidency was under scrutiny at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, as the justices heard more than three hours of arguments on whether House committees and prosecutors may obtain troves of information about President Trump’s business affairs.

The court’s ruling, expected by July, could require disclosure of information the president has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect. Or the justices could rule that Trump’s financial affairs are not legitimate subjects of inquiry.

But some of the justices’ questions raised a third possibility: that the court could return the cases to lower courts for reconsideration under stricter standards. That would have the incidental effect of deferring a final decision beyond the 2020 presidential election.

The first argument of two the court heard, which dealt with the congressional investigations, seemed to go better for Trump. The justices seemed more skeptical of the president’s case during the second argument, in which Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, argued that he was absolutely immune from criminal investigation while he remained in office.

There was no question that the questions before the court were momentous and consequential — for Trump, for the court, and for the separation of powers in government.

“The subpoenas here are unprecedented in every sense,” said Patrick Strawbridge, the lawyer representing Trump in the cases on inquiries from Congress.

Several justices disputed that, saying the Watergate investigation of President Richard Nixon and the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton provided apt analogies. Both presidents lost unanimous Supreme Court cases in which they sought to withhold information. “History and practice matter quite a bit in separation of powers cases,” said Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was appointed to the court by Trump.

The justices’ questions mostly reflected their usual inclinations, with the more liberal members of the court expressing skepticism of Trump’s arguments and the more conservative ones saying they were worried about opening the door to partisan harassment of the president.

But Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the case was in one sense routine. “It sounds like at the end of the day,” he said, “this is just another case in which the courts are balancing the competing interests.”

The interests the Supreme Court sought to balance included congressional power to gather information to inform legislative choices on the one hand and the constitutional status of the presidency on the other.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said inquiries into foreign influence over US elections were doubtless proper. But she and Kavanaugh indicated that the president’s medical records would be out of bounds.

Justice Elena Kagan said that Congress and the president had in the past worked out their differences through informal accommodations. Now, she said, Trump was asking the court to place a “10-ton weight” on one side of the balance.

Prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the court heard the arguments by telephone, an experiment that started last week.

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