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Supreme Court paves the way for release of Trump's tax returns to a House panel

The U.S. Supreme Court
Zach Gibson
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Getty Images

Updated November 22, 2022 at 7:10 PM ET

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to block a request by the House Ways and Means Committee for former President Donald 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, Rep. 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Jess Zalph