In a most recently decided high profile case titled Donald J Trump v. Cyrus R Vance, District Attorney Of The County Of New York, Et Al. 591 US _ (2020) on Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeal For The Second Circuit that was decided on July 9, 2020, the US Supreme Court has laid down the high moral principle that a sitting President cannot evade criminal investigation. The instant case involves the first state criminal subpoena directed to a President which the President claims to be unenforceable. With a majority of 7-2, the US Supreme Court has ruled against complete Presidential immunity by allowing a New York prosecutor access to the President’s financial records. However, the Congress has been prevented from similar access to the documents, for the time being.
Be it noted, this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment was authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and was also joined by Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M Gorsuch and Brett M Kavanuagh. As opposed to this, we saw how the other Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both dissented! It was held explicitly that the subpoena issued for retrieving President’s financial records for turning over to a grand jury can be enforced.
To start with, the ball is set rolling in the opening para of this judgment wherein it is observed that, “In our judicial system, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence”. [This maxim traces at least as far back as Lord Chancellor Hardwicke in a 1742 parliamentary debate. See 12 Parliamentary History of England 693 (1812)]. Presidents have uniformly testified or produced documents in criminal proceedings when called upon by federal courts. This case involves - so far as we and the parties can tell - the first state criminal subpoena directed to a President. The President contends that the subpoena is unenforceable. We granted certiorari to decide whether Article II and the Supremacy Clause categorically preclude, or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President.’’
Truth be told, it is then pointed out that, "In the summer of 2018, the New York County District Attorney's Office opened an investigation into what it opaquely describes as "business transactions involving multiple individuals whose conduct may have violated state law.’’ Brief for Respondent Vance 2. A year later, the office - acting on behalf of a grand jury - served a subpoena duces tecum (essentially a request to produce evidence) on Mazars USA, LLP, the personal accounting firm of President Donald J Trump. The subpoena directed Mazars to produce financial records relating to the President and business organizations affiliated with him, including "[t]ax returns and related schedules,’’ from "2011 to the present’’. App. To Pet. For Cert. 119a. (The grand jury subpoena essentially copied a subpoena issued to Mazars in April 2019 by the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, which is at issue in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, post, p._. The principal difference is that the instant subpoena expressly requests tax returns.’’
To be sure, it is then stated that, "The President, acting in his personal capacity, sued Mazars in Federal District Court to enjoin enforcement of the subpoena. He argued that, under Article II and the Supremacy Clause, a sitting President enjoys absolute immunity from state criminal process. He asked the court to issue a "declaratory judgment that the subpoena is invalid and unenforceable while the President is in office’’ and to permanently enjoin the district attorney from "taking any action to enforce the subpoena.’’ Amended complaint in No. 1:19-cv-8694 (SDNY, Sept. 25, 2019), p. 19. Mazars, concluding that the dispute was between the President and the district attorney, took no position on the legal issues raised by the President.’’
As it turned out, it is then brought out that, "The District Court abstained from exercising jurisdiction and dismissed the case based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) which generally precludes federal courts from intervening in ongoing state criminal prosecutions. 395F. Supp. 3d 283, 290 (SDNY, 2019). In an alternative holding, the court ruled that the President was not entitled to injunctive relief. Ibid.’’
Needless to say, it is then noted that, "Here we are confronted for the first time with a subpoena issued to the President by a local grand jury operating under the supervision of a state court. While the subpoena was directed to the President's accounting firm, the parties agree that the papers at issue belong to the President and that Mazars is merely the custodian. Thus, for purposes of immunity, it is functionally a subpoena issued to the President.’’
To put things in perspective, it is then observed that, "In the President's view, that distinction makes all the difference. He argues that the Supremacy Clause gives a sitting President absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas because compliance with those subpoenas would categorically impair a President's performance of his Article II functions. The Solicitor General, arguing on behalf of the United States, agree with much of the President's reasoning but does not commit to his bottom line. Instead, the Solicitor General urges us to resolve this case by holding that a state grand jury subpoena for a sitting President's personal records must, at the very least, "satisfy a heightened standard of need,’’ which the Solicitor General contends was not met here.’’
Most significantly, this noteworthy judgment minces no words to point out that, “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.” It also made clear that, “In our judicial system, the public has a right to every man’s evidence. Since the earliest days of the Republic, every man has included the President of the United States.”
Going ahead, it is then observed that, “The arguments presented here and in the Court of Appeals were limited to absolute immunity and heightened need. The Courts of Appeals, however, has directed that the case be returned to the District Court, where the President may raise further arguments as appropriate. 941 F.3d. at 646, n. 19. The daylight between our opinion and JUSTICE THOMAS’s “dissent” is not as great as that label might suggest. Post, at 12. We agree that Presidents are neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas nor insulated by a heightened need standard.”
Finally, it is then held that, “We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
In conclusion, the bottom-line of this commendable, convincing and courageous judgment is: Even the President is not above the Law! Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance too was of the view that, “This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a President – is above the law.”
On a similar note, Claire Finkelstein who is Director of the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania too said that, “The court found that the President is not above the law. He is not immune to ordinary criminal process.” The Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote this noteworthy judgment for the court rightly minced no words to make it absolutely clear that, “The President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need.” ACLU national legal director David Cole too said that, “The Supreme Court today confirmed that the President is not above the law. The court ruled that President Trump must follow the law, like the rest of us. And that includes responding to subpoenas for his tax records.”
Having said this, it must be clarified here that there is no immediate danger for President Donald Trump since the Prosecutor Cyrus Vance will have to return to the lower courts to follow up the subpoena to Deutsche Bank and Mazars, Trump’s bank and accountant respectively. But certainly it is a major setback to President Trump which is an undeniable fact. Vance is seeking 10 years of tax returns for Trump and his businesses as part of the probe into possible state tax fraud.
No doubt, the President’s Attorneys said that they were “pleased”. But Donald Trump himself appeared quite indignant and said bluntly that, “The Supreme Court sends case back to Lower Court, arguments to continue. This is all a political prosecution. I won the Mueller Witch Hunt and others, and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!” But he has no choice but to comply with what the top court of US has held so elegantly, effectively and eloquently! Before parting, it must be mentioned that US President Donald Trump is the only modern American President to have not publicly released tax returns or divest from major business interests while in office!