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In historic rulings today, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected President Trump's claim of absolute immunity from grand jury and congressional investigations. The vote was 7-2 in cases involving subpoenas for Trump's pre-presidential financial records. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Chief Justice Roberts wrote the court's two opinions, declaring, in our system, the public has a right to every man's evidence. And since the founding of the republic, every man has included the president of the United States. Roberts was joined in both cases by the court's four liberals. The two justices appointed by President Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, agreed as well, but only signed on to the bottom line in the grand jury case. They would've made it more difficult for the grand jury to subpoena the president's financial records.
Though the subpoenas in both cases were for similar information, the victory in the grand jury case was a clean win for the New York district attorney, likely guaranteeing access to a broad range of documents that had been subpoenaed from Trump's accountants, as well as banks that have loaned his business empire billions of dollars. In contrast, when the court sent the congressional subpoena case back to the lower courts, it called for more detailed legal findings. That ensures that the public will not see any of the subpoenaed material until after the election.
Trump was enraged by the outcome, tweeting, this is all a political prosecution. Not fair, he said. The courts in the past have given broad deference, but not me. New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance issued a statement calling the decision in the grand jury case a tremendous victory for our nation's system of justice and its founding principle that not even the president is above the law. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed those sentiments.
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NANCY PELOSI: The Supreme Court, including the president's appointees, have declared that he is not above the law.
TOTENBERG: The decisions were greeted with widespread approval in the legal community. Here, for instance, is Stuart Gerson, a former acting U.S. attorney general and top Justice Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration. Today's decisions, he said, are summed up in one sentence.
STUART GERSON: A president is not a king.
TOTENBERG: But some observers noted that while Trump suffered a two-barreled loss in the long run, in the short run, he may have won because nothing is going to be disclosed before the November election. University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.
STEPHEN VLADECK: The current president, as we've seen so many times, often wins these cases simply by stretching out the timetable and running out the clock.
TOTENBERG: Chief Justice Roberts' two opinions were a study in subtle contrasts, observes University of Virginia law professor Sai Prakash.
SAI PRAKASH: Oddly enough, it seems like the New York state prosecutor has more authority than Congress does.
TOTENBERG: That's because the court gave close to final approval to the broad subpoenas in the grand jury case but sent nearly identical congressional subpoenas back to the lower courts for a detailed look at whether the House committees have presented adequate evidence that the subpoenas advance a valid legislative purpose. The more detailed the better, said the chief justice.
JOSHUA CHAFETZ: I think there is a sort of cross-partisan dismissiveness or disdain towards Congress.
TOTENBERG: Georgetown law professor Joshua Chafetz.
CHAFETZ: It suggests that Congress actually has to meet a higher bar when it's looking into the president than when it's doing almost any other kind of investigation. And that seems, to me, precisely backwards because presidential oversight is a core function of Congress and always has been.
TOTENBERG: Harvard law professor Noah Feldman has a somewhat different take, noting that the court, for the first time, has ruled in a case that pits presidential and congressional powers against each other.
NOAH FELDMAN: So in that sense, the court has made itself more powerful relative to Congress. On the other hand, before, when Congress pressed and the president absolutely refused to participate, there was nowhere to go to get a third party to adjudicate. Now there is.
TOTENBERG: University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq agrees.
AZIZ HUQ: I think that both sides will spin this opinion in light of the fact that we're not going to see the tax returns. But really, what matters is that the strategy that in particular the Trump White House has used, which has been simply to say that the executive is never under an obligation to give over documents, is utterly undercut. And I think that's terribly important.
TOTENBERG: Thus, for instance, it would be very difficult for the administration to stonewall congressional requests for information as to which businesses are getting money under the CARES Act. Dissenting from today's decisions were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who each wrote solo opinions. Thomas said Congress has little subpoena power over private citizens and especially not for the president's private records. Justice Alito in the grand jury case accused the court majority of providing, quote, "no real protection for the presidency."
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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