Several times in the Supreme Court’s now-concluded 2019-2020 term, the justices stopped short of giving one side a complete victory on a hot-button issue. They did so again Thursday, the last day of the term, when the question was whether subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records—one from Manhattan’s district attorney, four from Congress—were enforceable.
Though the court’s moderation in some cases this term has been valuable, the punting in this instance was wrong. The court effectively rewarded Trump’s policy of total noncooperation with Congress and other investigators, allowing him to foil attempts to scrutinize his behavior before the November election. By unnecessarily lengthening the dispute, the justices sharpened the incentive for future presidents to fight subpoenas until courts force compliance.
Even so, the justices clarified the law so that courts might more quickly and confidently rule against a wayward president in future cases, vehemently rejecting Trump’s dangerous arguments for presidential impunity.
The justices rejected the president’s argument that Congress would have to meet an exacting standard to obtain any presidential document it sought. Yet they did not want to deliver an unmitigated victory to the legislature that might upset the balance that had existed when the two branches would negotiate and compromise. So the justices sent the case back to lower courts, declaring that lower-court judges must more carefully consider separation-of-powers concerns in weighing Congress’s demand to see Trump’s financial records.
It is hard to blame the justices for their caution and unease. But Trump’s rampant norm-breaking has made for uneasy times. He forced the issue by refusing to release his tax returns, lying about why, then attacking valid subpoenas. If the court again considers such a case, it must be clearer that the president cannot escape scrutiny.