The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to block a request by the House Ways and Means Committee for former President Trump's tax returns. There were no noted dissents.
The decision likely means that the returns will be released by the Treasury Department to the Committee immediately, ending a multi-year legal battle.
"The House looks forward to promptly receiving and reviewing these documents," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stating that the release of the tax information is vital to "guarding the public interest, defending our national security and holding our public officials to account."
Trump filed an emergency application at the Supreme Court on Oct. 31 to block the release of his tax information at least until the court considered whether it wanted to hear full argument on the issue. Trump similarly lost his case in the lower courts, most recently with a panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling unanimously that the Committee's request for tax returns was constitutional.
The House Ways and Means Committee argued that it needs the information contained in Trump's tax returns to meaningfully evaluate the IRS's presidential audit program. The Committee says it is considering implementing greater legislative oversight of financial activities conducted by presidents. In particular, it is investigating whether the current IRS audit program is able to adequately enforce the nation's tax laws against a president, like Trump, who has complex business holdings.
Of particular concern, the Committee points to instances when Trump has boasted about "a history of aggressive tax avoidance" and has called IRS audits of his business activities "unfair."
Trump's lawyers argued that turning over his tax returns would be an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers. The request for these documents, they said, was politically motivated and overbroad.
To support their argument, Trump's lawyers pointed to statements made by Democratic lawmakers, particularly following the 2016 election. Some congressmen, for instance, expressed a desire to see the returns in order to find out "what the Russians have on Donald Trump" and "how deep the crimes go."
The court's decision comes just a week after a New York Times report that President Trump tried to pressure the IRS to investigate his perceived political enemies.
A legal challenge years in the making
The legal battle at issue in Tuesday's order has been going on for over three years. In 2019, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Richard Neal, D-Mass., made a request to the IRS for then-President Trump's tax returns for the years 2013 to 2018. The 2019 request was denied by the Treasury Department, on the grounds that the request was not supported by a legitimate legislative purpose and was "pretextual."
The IRS is required, under its own rules, to conduct an audit of each sitting president's tax returns. Tax returns are typically, by law, considered confidential. However, the IRS is also legally required to release tax information in specific situations. One such situation is when the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee makes a formal request for these records.
Neal made an updated request, with additional details about the justification for the request, in 2021, this time seeking the 2015 to 2020 tax returns and related information. The Office of Legal Counsel for the Department of Treasury determined that the IRS was, this time, required to comply.
In response to Tuesday's decision, Neal stated that "since the Magna Carta, the principle of oversight has been upheld, and today is no different."
Trump's record at the Supreme Court
This is not the first time Trump has taken a fight about his taxes all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost in two previous cases. In one, he had to turn over his tax returns and other materials held by his accounting firm to a criminal grand jury in New York. But in the other case, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, involving a congressional subpoena for records, the loss was less clear. After more than three years of litigation, the two sides reached a settlement in September. And the Oversight Committee was ultimately able to access a limited version of their initial request.
The Mazars case produced some of the first Supreme Court precedent about the issues that can arise when Congress requests a president's personal information. The nature of the relationship between Congress and the president means that personal record subpoenas "unavoidably pit the political branches against one another," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in that 2020 opinion.
But the court did not resolve the issue definitively. Instead it established a test that requires lower courts to balance separation-of-powers concerns with the value of leaving a legitimate congressional investigation unimpeded. Broadly, an inquiry has to further a valid legislative purpose and the scope must be reasonably tailored to that goal. However, courts will generally be deferential to Congress's purpose, and the presence of political motives do not themselves invalidate a subpoena.
The lower courts in Tuesday's case found Congress's stated goal for obtaining Trump's tax returns was sufficient to override any separation of powers concerns — especially since the request pertains to a former, as opposed to a sitting, president and that the requested tax information is information that other modern presidents have typically all released voluntarily.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Former President Trump's tax records are likely to be turned over to the House Ways and Means Committee. This is after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a request by that committee for the former president's tax returns. There were no noted dissents. The decision likely ends a multiyear legal battle between House Democrats and the former president. Joining us now to discuss it all is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hey, Nina.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.
KELLY: All right. So this has been a long time coming. I will venture I'm not the only one who may have lost track of exactly how we got here. Briefly remind us.
TOTENBERG: Even I had to look back. The battle has been going on for over three years. So to put all this in perspective, every modern president since Richard Nixon, who got into real tax trouble, every modern president since then has made his taxes public, except for Trump, who famously - or infamously - has always found a way to avoid doing that. And in 2019, Congressman Richard Neal, who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, made a request to the IRS for then-President Trump's tax returns for the years 2013 to 2018.
TOTENBERG: The Treasury Department, then run by Trump's Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, denied that request on the grounds that it was not supported by a legitimate legislative purpose. Two years later, Neal made an updated request with additional details about the justification for his request. The committee, he said, needed the information contained in Trump's tax returns to meaningfully evaluate the IRS' presidential audit program, which requires the taxes of every president to be audited. Of course, we've never had a president like Trump who had such enormous and diverse business interests and so many opportunities for conflicts of interest. So the committee said it was considering implementing greater legislative oversight of a president's financial activities. And on a second try in 2021, with Trump no longer president, the Treasury Department's office of legal counsel determined that the IRS had to comply and turn over the tax returns to the House committee. Trump, of course, challenged the decision in court. He lost and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which today refused to block the House panel's request.
KELLY: OK. So that's a glimpse of the long and winding path to get to today of Supreme Court's decision. Do things move faster now?
TOTENBERG: Well, the decision likely means that the returns will be released to the committee immediately or close to immediately. After all, the IRS, under a specific statute, has to comply with a committee request for a president's or anyone's taxes. We don't know when this is going to happen exactly or whether the panel will make any portion of the taxes public, although there's no indication of that. But once the Republicans take over, Mary Louise, when they take over the House in January, I doubt they're going to have any appetite for tackling Trump's taxes. Anyway, maybe someone else's - I can imagine somebody else's taxes they might want to get. But that still leaves time for the Democrats to examine the Trump tax returns. I'm not sure from the committee's point of view it has - but it - that it will find anything special, and certainly, it won't have legislation.
TOTENBERG: It at least has established a precedent, though, for the future.
KELLY: A key point there, that even the committee will get their hands on these returns, but we may never see them. We don't know if or when we will. Just briefly, you know, he's lost two previous cases at the Supreme Court over his taxes.
TOTENBERG: (Laughter) In one, he had to turn over his tax returns and other materials held by his accounting firm to a criminal grand jury in New York. But in the other case involving a congressional subpoena for his financial records, not just his tax returns, the loss was less clear, and they finally reached a settlement in September of this year.
KELLY: All right. NPR's Nina Totenberg, thank you.
TOTENBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.