The Supreme Court building is seen Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Justices heard arguments in three cases that seek fiscal records belonging to President Donald Trump. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo
May 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared divided Tuesday during oral arguments in three cases that will determine whether President Donald Trump can block congressional investigators' attempts to access his tax returns and other financial documents.
The high court heard the cases via teleconference and the proceedings were streamed via a live audio feed that's provided a public feed since court began remote sessions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
All three cases were initially scheduled to be heard by the high court in March, but were postponed due to the health emergency.
In the two cases involving congressional subpoenas, Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justice Neil Gorsuch appeared to side with the four Democratic appointees, asking Trump's lawyers why they shouldn't allow Congress to determine whether its investigations have a legislative purpose.
"Why is this subpoena not supported by a substantial legislative need," Gorsuch asked, according to CNBC.
The court's second-newest member also pressed Trump attorneys on their argument that Trump should be immune from investigation because it's distracting to the presidency.
"How is this more burdensome than what took place in Clinton vs. Jones," Gorsuch asked, referring to Paula Jones' 1997 sexual harassment suit against former President Bill Clinton.
House counsel Douglas Letter said the subpoenas aren't distracting because they're directed at third parties.
"There's no way that these can interfere with the president, because doesn't have to do anything," he said.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr., meanwhile, appeared concerned about House subpoena powers and whether there are enough limits. He said if the House can issue a subpoena on any type of legislation, "that's not much protection; in fact, that's no protection," he said, according to The Washington Post.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared to echo Alito's concern, saying the Supreme Court is attempting to balance "how can we both protect the House's interest in information it needs ... but also protect the president."
In the first case, the justices heard a challenge from Trump's attorneys to block a subpoena from the House oversight committee that has requested Trump's tax returns from the accounting firm Mazars USA.
The committee first requested the returns after Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified that the president manipulated the value of his assets for personal gain.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld an earlier ruling that said the firm must hand over the records. Trump attorneys then applied for a stay last fall, arguing that the House lacks authority to issue subpoenas for any purpose other than writing laws.
"This is the first time that Congress has subpoenaed private records of a sitting president," Trump attorney William Consovoy wrote in a Supreme Court brief. "These subpoenas are no more valid than would be demands for the president's medical records so Congress may consider healthcare reform."
House Democrats responded by arguing Congress does indeed have subpoena power as a measure to assess how federal laws are working.
"It is scarcely surprising that investigators need to conduct a thorough investigation when seeking to determine whether money laundering, election and national security, disclosure and conflict of interest laws are sufficient," they wrote in their brief.
In the second congressional case, the president's attorneys are also seeking to have the high court block congressional subpoenas for financial information from two banks -- Deutsche Bank and Capital One -- that have provided services to Trump's businesses.
The subpoenas seek to investigate the president's past dealings with foreign businesses, including transactions potentially linked to Iran and Russia, to determine whether they violated the law.
A lower appellate court ruled in favor of the House committees, saying there is a legitimate concern that involves "national security and the integrity of elections."
Trump vs. Vance
The third case before the high court Tuesday involved a response to grand jury subpoenas obtained by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance that seek nearly a decade's worth of Trump's financial records.
The case is related to an investigation into purported "hush money" payments the president is said to have made to two women to keep secret alleged extramarital affairs. Vance wants eight years of Trump's records related to payments he says were made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal.
Carey Dunne, counsel with Vance's office, told the Supreme Court Tuesday that investigators are worried about the length of time it's taken them to get the records they seek.
"No one should forget that we've got an investigation that is looking at the conduct of other people and businesses, and waiting like that would benefit those other participants," Dunne said, adding that the statute of limitation could expire.
"We've already lost nine months of time in this investigation due to this lawsuit. Every minute that goes by without even a decision on the merits here, is granting the kind of temporary absolute immunity that the president is seeking here."
Trump's attorneys argue a sitting president cannot be indicted and is therefore immune from any part of the criminal justice process, including grand jury subpoenas.
"We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant review in this significant constitutional case and reverse the dangerous and damaging decision of the appeals court," Trump's team argued in November.
"The risk that politics will lead state and local prosecutors to relentlessly harass the president is simply too great to tolerate."
A lower appellate court, however, ruled Vance's subpoena is lawful because it's directed at Mazars USA, Trump's accounting firm, not the president himself. It also ruled that the subpoena is lawful because it seeks items related to his private business, not his official capacity as president.
Rulings in all three cases are expected by the end of June.