On the last day of its 2019 term, the Supreme Court decided two cases about the degree to which President Donald Trump’s personal financial records are subject to subpoena by two different investigating bodies. In Trump v. Vance, the Court rejected the president’s claim that he is immune from state grand-jury subpoenas while in office, and even rejected the contention that such subpoenas must meet a higher standard than those issued to ordinary citizens.
Trump v. Mazars, by contrast, concerned subpoenas issued by several congressional committees. There, the Court likewise rejected the view advanced by President Trump, which would have applied the established test for executive-privilege cases even though the documents in question are not privileged. But the Court also said that these congressional subpoenas raise genuine separation-of-powers concerns, which the lower courts had not taken seriously enough. Thus the Court sent Mazars back to the lower courts for consideration under a new standard, one that offers the presidency more protection against congressional investigation.
Most of the commentary on these two cases has focused on who “won” or “lost,” and indeed, that is somewhat difficult to parse, particularly in Mazars. But while their practical effect on President Trump’s effort to keep his financial records secret is of the greatest immediate political concern, the two decisions are also interesting for what they say, taken together, about how the Court sees the different institutions involved, and the relationships among them. Evidently, in almost all of the justices’ view, it is far more appropriate, and raises far fewer concerns, for a state grand jury to investigate the president than for the United States Congress to do so. That outcome was largely expected, especially after counsel for the House of Representatives seemed to stumble at oral argument; indeed, a common prediction was that President Trump would lose Vance but win Mazars.