Editorial: The Supreme Court stands up for the rule of law against President Trump's brazen claims of immunity

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. - Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS

No, the U.S. Supreme Court did not hand out copies of Donald Trump’s still-secret tax returns yesterday, but seven of the jurists (including the “two great justices” he appointed) ruled that no one is above the law and a Manhattan grand jury can subpoena Trump’s financial records from his accountant and bank. Even the two dissents rejected Trump’s phony claim of total presidential exemption.

While we are loath to compare the current loathsome occupant of the White House with any of his far more honorable predecessors, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority that just as Thomas Jefferson was not immune from the courts seeking information, neither is Trump.

As Roberts wrote: “a president may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen.” Nothing less and, importantly, nothing more.

That was obvious from the first minute that Trump sued Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to prevent the grand jury from probing Trump’s dirty dealings.

It was long settled that federal courts could compel disgorgement of documents from presidents. Now state courts have the same power. It’s fitting since New York’s courts with common law authority over New Yorkers were set up before the creation of the presidency and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Trump can still resist the grand jury subpoena on the merits, but he’s unlikely to prevail.

However, for all the high court’s proper deference to the tradition of an independent judiciary, including grand juries, the justices were less eager to get involved in a fight between Congress and the White House, sending back a companion case of House committees trying to subpoena Trump’s papers. It’s understandable that the third branch didn’t want to outright decide a squabble between the first and second branches — but here, too, Roberts rejected the executive’s most sweeping claims.

Vance will get the tax returns, eventually. The public will not. The only way forward on that front is for Albany to pass a law, publishing the state returns of all statewide officeholders. Do it now, before November.


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