The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled that former President Donald Trump’s tax returns fall under the House of Representatives’ subpoena powers.
The panel of three judges ruled that the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee can legally obtain the former president’s tax documents from the Internal Revenue Service.
“The Chairman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means filed a statutory request for documents from the Department of the Treasury related to then-President Donald J. Trump and related entities,” the court related as background. “Treasury initially objected to the request, and the Committee filed this lawsuit. After a change of administrations, Treasury acquiesced, stating that it intended to comply with the request. In the meantime, the Trump Parties intervened in the action. The district court ruled in favor of the Committee. Intervenors appeal. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.”
“As a general rule, Title 26, Section 6103 of the United States Code makes tax returns and return information confidential unless their release is authorized by an exception enumerated in that same section,” the court’s majority opinion held. “26 U.S.C. § 6103(a). Section 6103 includes a number of exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality but only one is at issue here. Section 6103(f)(1)provides that [u]pon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives . . . the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request . . . . 26 U.S.C. § 6103(f)(1). At bottom, this case simmers down to the constitutionality and application of § 6103(f)(1). Operating separately from § 6103(f)(1), IRS regulations give the President’s tax returns special consideration.”
“While IRS audits are often random, the IRS has required the audit of the sitting President’s tax returns since 1977,” the court continued. “This Presidential Audit Program is a creature of IRS regulations and is not required or governed by statute.”
“Against both the Committee and Treasury, the Trump Parties asserted that the Request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose and violates the separation of powers. Against Treasury, the Trump Parties alleged that § 6103(f)(1) is facially unconstitutional and that compliance with the Request would be a violation of the First Amendment,” the court added.
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“The Trump Parties timely appealed the district court’s granting of the motions to dismiss,” the court noted.
“The Trump Parties claim that the Chairman’s Request is mere pretext for an unconstitutional ulterior motive,” the court continued. “In a deluge of citations to statements of individual committee members, statements made during Committee debate, reports published by Representative Neal, statements from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, an op-ed, interview statements, social media posts, and statements of Representatives who are not members of the Committee, the Trump Parties assert that the true purpose behind the Chairman’s Request is to expose the Trump Parties’ tax returns to the public and to uncover evidence of criminal conduct.”
“However, they are looking for evidence of improper purpose in the wrong place,” the court maintedin. “‘[I]n determining the legitimacy of a congressional act we do not look to the motives alleged to have prompted it.’ The Speech or Debate Clause, U.S. Const. art. 1, § 6, cl. 1, protects against inquiry into the motives behind the regular course of the legislative process. It is not our function to ‘test the motives of committee members for this purpose.’ ‘Their motives alone would not vitiate an investigation which had been instituted by a House of Congress if that assembly’s legislative purpose is being served’.”
“The Chairman has identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish,” the court added. “At this stage, it is not our place to delve deeper than this. The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment. Indeed, it is likely rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications. The statements of individual Committee members and members who are not part of the Committee provided by the Trump Parties do not change this. The courts do not probe the motives of individual legislators. These motives are explicitly protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.”
“While it is clear from Mazars that we must consider how this Request implicates the separation of powers, that Donald Trump is a former President rather than a sitting President complicates the analysis,” the judges concede. “How we should evaluate a Congressional request for the information of a former President is less clear. The parties disagree over which test should be applied in this case.”
“[I]t is likely law of the circuit that a Congressional request for a sitting President’s personal information is evaluated under the heightened Mazars standard regardless of whether the President in question remains in office,” the appeals court concluded. “However, because of the possibility of further appellate review in both this case and Mazars and because of distinctions, likely without a difference, between the case before us and Mazars, we hold at the outset that the Chairman’s request in this case passes muster under all suggested variations of the separation of powers analysis.”
The court’s ruling can be read in full below:
This is breaking news. It will be updated as more information is forthcoming.
OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.