Rule of law triumphs over Trump

Even if the public won't get a look at the president's tax returns yet, the Supreme Court has told the president he's not above the law.

Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. The US Supreme Court on Thursday said that Vance could subpoena President Trump's tax returns.
Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. The US Supreme Court on Thursday said that Vance could subpoena President Trump's tax returns.Desiree Rios/The New York Times

For those who care deeply about the rule of law, about the principles that have set this Republic apart since its founding, those who care that its institutions remain strong no matter who is in the White House, the decisions issued Thursday by the Supreme Court should be a welcome relief — an affirmation that no man, no president, including Donald Trump, is above the law.

Sure, voters will probably not get to see Trump’s tax returns before the election — and that’s unfortunate. But the most important thing is that a grand jury and a New York prosecutor will see them. That in the end is a triumph for our legal system and a defeat for a man who has operated for nearly four years under the assumption that he is the law.


In two separate cases, Trump’s lawyers attempted to shield his financial records from three committees in Congress that had subpoenaed them and also from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Vance had subpoenaed eight years of tax returns in connection with a grand jury probe of alleged hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In the latter case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, cited precedent, saying that in this country’s judicial system, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,” and “since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.”

To prove his point, he went back to a treason case brought against Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr) and Chief Justice John Marshall’s reasoning that “a king is born to power and can ‘do no wrong.’ The President, by contrast, is ‘of the people’ and subject to the law.”


Supreme Court rulings against Presidents Nixon and Clinton would follow — but the principle has held.

Of course, that didn’t stop Trump from whining via Twitter about the two 7-2 decisions, “This is all a political prosecution. I won the Mueller Witch Hunt, and others, and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!

“Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference'. BUT NOT ME!”

Well, Clinton might beg to differ, but let’s not confuse legal facts in evidence with yet another Trump rant. And the fact that two Trump appointees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were part of the majority would cause a more rational man to reconsider.

The case involving subpoenas from three House committees seeking financial records from Trump’s longtime accounting firm, Mazars USA, Capital One, and Trump’s biggest lender, Deutsche Bank, posed some thornier separation of powers issues for the court.

And Roberts, again writing for the court, said that because the lower courts hadn’t fully considered that “a limitless subpoena power would transform the ‘established practice’ of the political branches,” the issue was tossed back to those courts to reconsider.

So, yes, a Supreme Court punt, but with some instructions from the high court, like “courts should be attentive to the nature of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. The more detailed and substantial, the better.” So no fishing expeditions, but also no blanket prohibitions on such inquiries. And since several of those subpoenas are part of a congressional inquiry into foreign interference in the 2016 election, this is far from over.


Roberts also noted, “Historically, disputes over congressional demands for presidential documents have been resolved by the political branches through negotiation and compromise without involving this Court.”

But that assumes a person with some respect for such enduring principles — any principles — occupies the Oval Office.

“Congress and the President — the two political branches established by the Constitution — have an ongoing relationship that the Framers intended to feature both rivalry and reciprocity,” Roberts wrote.

And White House reciprocity has been in short supply lately.

But the overarching message for Trump — should he be capable of comprehending it — is that there are limits to his power and limits to his abuse of the law. And until the voters have their say in November, that will have to do to keep the Republic safe.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.