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In our opinion: On Trump’s taxes, Supreme Court stands for separation of powers

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Members of the media set up outside the Supreme Court, Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Washington. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Manhattan district attorney can obtain Trump tax returns while not allowing Congress to get Trump tax and financial records, for now, returning the case to lower courts.

Associated Press

In two decisions handed down Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced two important principles.

The first is that the president, any president, is not above the law. The court, by a 7-2 ruling that included more liberally minded judges in the majority, rebuffed President Trump’s arguments that a president has absolute immunity when it comes to being forced to disclose information to prosecutors.

The second is that the three branches of government must remain separate, acting only as checks on each other’s power. The House, the court said (again by the same 7-2 majority), didn’t give proper deference to executive branch prerogatives when demanding records from those who had served the president.

Perhaps a third, unstated lesson is that the value of a president’s power to appoint Supreme Court justices may be overrated. President Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom sided with the majority in each case, ultimately forcing the cases back to lower courts, where the fight to obtain Trump’s tax and financial records will continue.

Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by President George W. Bush, also a Republican, wrote both opinions.

“Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference,’ the president tweeted in response, “BUT NOT ME!” Instead, he lamented, he must continue to fight battles over financial disclosure. 

He should blame the Founding Fathers, who understood that, while Supreme Court justices would be nominated and confirmed through a political process, they must be free to adjudicate according to the law and legal principles once in office, not in deference to political concerns.

Casual observers may complain that the high court is too reluctant to render decisive rulings in such cases, or that the justices “punted” these ones back to lower courts. The truth is that the court is reluctant to wade into matters that cross the lines between branches of government. That reluctance is a good thing.

Partisans will complain bitterly that the rulings were unfair to this president, dragging out what Trump calls “political prosecution.” But the court cannot view these matters in terms of the current president’s fortunes. The justices have a duty to understand that everything they do sets a precedent that will apply to all future presidents, whether Republicans or Democrats.

In the most devastating ruling for the president, the court said the president did not have an absolute right to keep a New York prosecutor from obtaining financial records as part of a criminal investigation into alleged bribes paid to women who claim to have had affairs with Trump. The case was sent back to a lower court, where the president will have a chance to raise new objections to the subpoena for information.

In the other case, the court said the House could not obtain the broad information it was seeking as part of its investigations. The matter was sent back to a lower court with instructions to narrow the scope of the information being sought.

Experts say it is unlikely, in either case, that the president would be forced to release papers prior to the election. They likely would have little political relevance after that.

Years from now, few will remember the political passions swirling around the release of the documents in question. However, lawyers and justices will certainly remember the precedents set in these two rulings. 

In the long run, preserving the delicate separation among the three branches of government and reinforcing the notion that presidents are not above the law will matter more to the republic than any current concerns. That is the right focus.