Constitution Daily

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Swift ruling likely in first round of Trump financial records subpoena fight

May 10, 2019 by Lyle Denniston


The view widely expressed by political pundits and television analysts is that America is facing a slow and prolonged process before the constitutional fight between Congress and President Trump over forced disclosure of his private financial records would be finally resolved in the courts. But, on Thursday, a federal trial judge in Washington D.C., cast significant doubt on that prospect.

U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, who is handling the first federal lawsuit by the Trump legal team challenging a congressional subpoena, disclosed that he will move quickly to reach a final decision after holding a hearing just five days from now.

Although the two sides in the case before Judge Mehta have so far only filed dueling briefs over whether the judge should temporarily block a subpoena by the House Oversight Committee, Judge Mehta wrote in a brief new order that he has already seen enough to move on to the actual merits (or a decision on which side will win in his court).

That could set up a quick appeal to a federal appeals court and probably a rapid appeal on to the Supreme Court, if not an attempt to go directly to the Supreme Court after Judge Mehta has ruled.

The judge declared Thursday that the sole issue before him, on the basic question of who should win, is whether the House committee’s demand for private records of several Trump businesses is “a valid exercise of legislative power.”

That, Mehta found, has already been “fully briefed” and he added that, as the judge, he “can discern no benefit from an additional round of legal arguments.” Mehta also said he saw no reason to take the time to further develop the facts of the dispute.

Mehta has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday at 11 a.m. in his courtroom in downtown Washington. He first set that hearing date last month, one day after the President’s lawyers had sued to block the committee subpoena that had been sent to one of the accounting firms for Trump’s private businesses (the firm of Mazars USA). Judge Mehta planned to use that hearing to explore whether to issue a temporary order blocking the subpoena until he could rule on whether or not to actually enforce the subpoena – a two-stage process, possibly separated by weeks if not months.

Since then, the Trump lawyers and the House Committee’s lawyers had filed written legal briefs on that preliminary question. The Trump lawsuit was originally aimed at Mazars, to keep it from obeying the subpoena, but the House Committee was allowed to enter the case to defend its subpoena and the accounting firm has now told the judge that it is taking no position in this fight; it will not even have a lawyer taking part in next week’s hearing.

On Wednesday, Trump’s lawyers filed the final written document on the question of a preliminary ruling. Reacting promptly on Thursday, the judge compressed next week’s hearing into a review on both whether to temporarily block the subpoena and on whether to rule finally for or against its enforcement. Given the pace he has already set in handling the case, he probably would rule promptly after the hearing.

Courts, of course, are traditionally methodical and cautious about observing all of the requirements of trying a case, and it thus is conventional to assume that the process seldom will move rapidly. Symbols of turtles, commonly among nature’s slowest-moving creatures, abound throughout the Supreme Court’s building.

But, if the core dispute is urgent enough, courts can move swiftly, indeed. The constitutional fight over whether George W. Bush or Senator Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election took only 36 days, from start to finish – and that included two trips to the Supreme Court and multiple proceedings both in the state courts of Florida and lower federal trial and appeals courts.

In the written arguments the two sides have filed so far in Judge Mehta’s court, they are basically jousting over whether the House Committee has any real legislative business in mind in demanding access to business records of the Trump companies, or whether it is merely seeking for political purposes simply to accomplish “exposure for exposure’s sake.”

The committee not only insists that it has a variety of potential legislative remedies in mind for potential conflicts of interest between the President’s legal duties as Chief Executive and his business activity, but that the Supreme Court has made clear repeatedly that courts are not to second-guess the legitimacy of Congress when it is exercising its constitutional rule of “oversight” of the other branches of government.

The Trump organizations, in turn, not only insists that there is no legislative goal that the committee could be pursuing beyond mere politics, but also argues that the Supreme Court has made clear repeatedly that there are limits to Congress’s power to demand information, and that Congress has no power at all to act as a policeman enforcing federal laws – a job that belongs to the Executive Branch alone.

Besides quarreling over Supreme Court precedents, the two sides also have their own dueling interpretations of what the Founders who wrote the Constitution had in mind in initially creating a federal government in which the three branches would exercise “checks and balances” over each other.

Once Judge Mehta rules on whether to enforce the committee’s records demand, the losing side would have the option of appealing first to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit or to attempt to move directly on to the Supreme Court for an even earlier decision. The Trump Administration has repeatedly used direct appeals to the Supreme Court when its official policy initiatives have been thwarted in the federal trial courts, thus bypassing the mid-level federal appeals courts.

The Trump business empire has a second lawsuit, pending in a federal trial court in New York City. That lawsuit seeks to block congressional subpoenas for Trump financial records held by Deutsche Bank and Capital One Financial Corp. That case involves a subpoena issued to those financial institutions by the House Financial Services Committee.

The New York case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos. The Trump legal team has filed a preliminary request to block enforcement of the subpoena pending further action in Judge Ramos’s court. The judge has scheduled a hearing on that motion for May 22. That case is thus on a slower track, at this point than the one in Judge Mehta’s court in Washington.

Lyle Denniston has been writing about the Supreme Court since 1958. His work has appeared here since mid-2011.


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