Amid the growing problems of the coronavirus pandemic, there is an ongoing legal battle between two branches of the federal government. Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, which has been consolidated with Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, deals with the issue of Congressional overreach into the president’s personal affairs. This case brings up serious concerns about the separation of powers and the system of checks-and-balances in the United States.
The roots of this case developed in the elections of November 2018, when the Democratic Party secured the majority in the House of Representatives. Following their victory, three House committees issued subpoenas to accounting firms, creditors and banks that had access to President Donald Trump’s private financial records.
The subpoenas requested information about President Trump’s personal financial accounts, as well as those of his family and any business entities with which he is affiliated.
Representatives for President Trump filed lawsuits against Mazars USA and Deutsche Bank, to prevent them from complying with the congressional subpoenas.
While the lawsuit is filed against the financial institutions the true opposition in this case is the House of Representatives and its committees, who argue the subpoenas are valid and that Congress is not overstepping its authority.
The cases were first heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, respectively, where each court approved Congress’s use of its legislative subpoena power.
The cases were consolidated and appealed to the Supreme Court, with President Trump and his representatives petitioning for the subpoenas to be invalidated.
Their argument was that the subpoenas served no legitimate legislative purpose. The Petitioners claim that there is no precedent for Congress to request the private records of a sitting president, and that Congress has only implied authority to issue subpoenas. At that, their authority is only to issue subpoenas in aid of lawmaking functions.
Petitioners argue that this is a law enforcement effort, a ploy to expose any possible wrongdoings or financial crimes that the president may have committed. Something which, they argue, is beyond the scope of Congress’ authority.
On the other side, the Respondents ask the Supreme Court to consider previous examples of Congress using its legislative subpoena power, and to realize that there are more historical examples of its use than the Petitioners claim.
They argue that their issuance of these subpoenas meets the standard set by the Court, in which legislative subpoenas are allowed if they are intended to inform Congress in an area where legislation may be had. In fact, the House attached legislative purpose to each subpoena issued.
They claim that insight into President Trump’s financial records will inform Congress and aid them in constructing legislation about financial disclosures and conflict-of-interest laws, as well as the use of banks in the United States to carry out international money-laundering and unsafe lending practices.
As for the argument that their subpoena authority is only implied, the Respondents countered with the fact that just because a power is not expressly spelled out in the Constitution does not mean that it is insignificant or nonexistent. They pointed to the Supreme Court’s practice of judicial review as an example of this, stating that both practices, while not explicitly in the Constitution, have strong historical pedigrees and are integral parts of the federal government’s function.
The Respondents cited several cases in which the Court authorized Congress’s authority to issue subpoenas if they were related to a valid legislative purpose.
Oral arguments were remotely presented to the Supreme Court May 12, 2020. From the beginning, it was clear it would not end favorably for the House.
Douglas Letter, the attorney representing the U.S. House of Representatives, began his argument by outlining previous examples of the Supreme Court allowing Congress to use broad powers in conducting investigations. He pointed to the fact that this is an important historical precedent because without it, Congress would not be able to make informed, law-making decisions.
Chief Justice Roberts, along with several others, expressed concern with the Court’s previous decisions and rule, stating that there do not seem to be limits on Congress’s authority when it comes to issuing legislative subpoenas.
Justice Alito believes issuing these subpoenas could amount to an attack or harassment of the president.
“Mr. Letter, I was somewhat baffled by your answer to Justice Ginsburg about the use of congressional subpoenas for purposes of harassing a president,” Justice Alito stated during oral argument. “Your final answer was courts can take care of that. But that’s the issue here, whether something should be done to prevent the use of these subpoenas for the harassment of a president.”
Overall, the justices appeared to lean toward President Trump’s position. Although, the existing precedent seems to indicate that Congress has not overstepped its authority. An order has not yet been issued, and the investigations against President Trump are ongoing.