In Decisive Ruling, Supreme Court Rejects Trump Administration Challenges to State Criminal Grand Jury Subpoena (Part I of II)

In a decisive ruling, in Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court rejected President Trump’s challenges to a New York State grand jury subpoena.  In a 7-2 vote, The Supreme Court rejected the Trump Administration challenges. 

In a separate case, Trump v. Mazars, which will be analyzed in Part II tomorrow, the Supreme Court rejected challenges by a vote of 7 to 2 to Congress’ subpoena for Trump’s financial records. 

The two cases represent the consolidation of Chief Justice Robert’s influence at the Court and the handling of high-profile cases.  In the past term, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority in rejecting Trump Administration appeals concerning the 2020 Census, the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, the Louisiana anti-abortion law, and now these two important cases. 

Chief Justice Roberts has shown in several significant cases that the Trump Administration claims are out of bounds and incorrect.  The message from Chief Justice Roberts is clear – when it comes to significant issues as involved in these cases, make sure the Justice Department prosecutes the appeals correctly and consistent with the law.  In other words, Chief Justice Roberts is no fan of the Trump Administration’s legal acumen and has reinforced his displeasure in numerous significant cases this term.

In Trump v. Vance, the Supreme Court upheld enforcement of the New York State grand jury subpoena for Trump’s financial records.  While the justices voted 7-2 to uphold the subpoena, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected President Trump’s claim that he was absolutely immune from federal or state criminal prosecution.  Such a claim, which was exceedingly broad, could not pass the review of dissenting justices Thomas and Alito, who dissented on other grounds after rejecting any claim of absolute immunity.

Writing for the Majority, Chief Justice Roberts outlined a history lesson on presidential compliance with federal criminal subpoenas – either to testify or produce records. 

Beginning the majority opinion with the famous maxim that “[i]n our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to every man’s evidence.’”  As Chief Justice Roberts noted, “[s]ince the earliest days of the Republic, ’every man,’ has included the President of the United States.”

Going back to 1807, Chief Justice Roberts noted that John Marshall, presiding over the treason trial of Aaron Burr, granted Burr’s motion for a subpoena duces tecum at President Jefferson.  Marshall ruled that a president was not exempt from the guarantee  that the accused has compulsory process for obtaining witnesses for their defense.

Successive presidents from Monroe to Clinton have followed this 1807 ruling that the president is subject to subpoena and have testified when required in criminal cases.  In 1974, then President Nixon was ordered by the Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision to produce tape recordings subpoenaed by Special Prosecutor Jaworski.  United States v. Nixon, 418 U. S. 683, 713.

While the cases are clear when dealing with federal criminal proceedings, the Trump v. Vance case presented a unique situation involving state criminal subpoenas.  President Trump argued that the subpoena created burdens of diversion, stigma and harassment.  The Justice Department argued that state criminal subpoenas should be upheld only when they meet a heightened standard.

In rejecting these claims, the Supreme Court noted that claims of immunity based on distraction were overruled in Clinton v. Jones, when President Clinton’s challenges to a deposition subpoena in a civil case was found insufficient.  The Supreme Court noted that two centuries of experience have demonstrated that a properly tailored criminal subpoena will not normally hamper a president’s ability to carry out his/her duties.

A New York grand jury subpoenaed financial records from Trump’s accounting firm Mazars USA for “financial records relating to the President and business organizations affiliated with him, including ‘[t]ax returns and related schedules,’ from ‘2011 to present.’” 

All nine justices, using different language, rejected any claim of absolute immunity.  Chief Justice Roberts noted the history of president complying with federal subpoenas in criminal matters, and concluded that state criminal subpoenas are no different.  Chief Justice Roberts further rejected that the state should not be required to meet some heightened showing of need to secure the president’s financial records.  The majority remanded the case for further proceedings at the state court.

Interestingly, Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch joined the majority decision.  However, they supported a heightened need test for state subpoenas for presidential documents.

Justice Thomas and Alito dissented.  They rejected the claim of absolute immunity.  They argued that the president deserved even more deference.

Chief Justice Roberts closed the Court’s Opinion with the following observation:

Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding. We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need. The “guard[] furnished to this high officer” lies where it always has—in “the conduct of a court” applying established legal and constitutional principles to individual subpoenas in a manner that preserves both the independence of the Executive and the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Trump v. Vance, supra, at 21

You may also like...