Ignore the partisan vitriol from across our political divide about whether President Donald Trump was a winner or loser in the rulings handed down Thursday by the nation’s highest court.
The significance of the two Supreme Court decisions regarding Trump’s financial records was in how they powerfully affirmed the rule of law, concluding that the president enjoys no more rights than any other American. Also important: Trump’s two appointees agreed with the majority in rejecting the president’s argument that he is entitled to absolute immunity.
The twin 7-2 rulings in the difficult and complicated cases concluded a remarkable term in which the court largely steered clear of the political battles being waged around it, with warrior-ideologues trying to tug it in opposite directions. Chief among the combatants has been Trump himself. He was at it again Thursday, complaining about political persecution and not being shown “deference” by the court, still not understanding that the proper judicial yardstick is not loyalty to him but fealty to an independent justice system.
This term saw the court push back on the president’s attempt to end deportation protections for young immigrants known as Dreamers, because he did not follow the process for doing so dictated by law. It ruled that gay and transgender employees are protected from discrimination by civil rights law, rejecting the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude them. It struck down a Louisiana law severely curtailing abortions, avoiding the appearance that it had flipped its position of four years ago because of a new justice. On Thursday, the court beautifully affirmed the modern-day validity of a 19th-century treaty and statute that established part of Eastern Oklahoma as Native American land. The law is the law, in other words, despite the state and federal government trying to renege on promises.
The two decisions that served as the term’s capstones stemmed from the period before Trump became president. In the first case, the court allowed the Manhattan district attorney to continue with a subpoena of Trump’s business and personal financial records, rejecting his claim of absolute immunity from investigation while in office. “No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts, while noting that Trump enjoys the same rights granted other citizens to contest the subpoena on grounds outlined in state law.
In the second case, the court ruled that Congress could not see the records it sought — at least for now — because the lower courts that gave Congress the go-ahead did not fully consider separation-of-powers concerns. With Roberts again writing, the court made clear that Congress does have broad investigative powers but those powers have limits, and it sent the matter back to the lower courts with guidance on how to weigh the validity of the Trump subpoenas.
The nuanced rulings show a court determined to retain its legitimacy even as the fires of partisanship burn hotter year by year.
— The editorial board