US Supreme Court refuses to bend to Trump’s will

With its decisions on Donald Trump’s financial records on Thursday, the Supreme Court sounded a note it has played more than once this term: it would not simply dance to the president’s tune.

The US high court’s rulings in two cases concerning records held by Mr Trump’s accountant and bankers dismissed arguments that he was immune from investigation, and upheld the power of state prosecutors and Congress to subpoena a president’s personal documents.

They follow other decisions this term in which conservative justices — including one of Mr Trump’s appointees — dashed the hopes of the Republican party that placed them on the court, instead delivering liberal policy victories on issues such as gay and transgender rights.

All the while, Chief Justice John Roberts, a staunch conservative appointed by George W Bush, has cemented his influence as the ideological centre of a court that has shifted to the right under Mr Trump, penning a trio of key opinions that checked the president.

“You get a message that the Supreme Court is unwilling to sanction what it perceives as executive abuse of power,” said Gillian Metzger, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia Law School.

The 2019 Supreme Court term has been both unusual and consequential, not just on questions of religious freedom, separation of powers, and hot-button issues such as abortion and immigration, but also for the institution itself.

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the court to close in March, the justices conducted hearings via teleconference and allowed the public to listen remotely, both historic firsts. The resulting slowdown saw the court release decisions as late as July for the first time in decades.

Though the court has a 5-4 majority of Republican appointees, including two justices installed by Mr Trump, in several key cases this term, it delivered victories to liberals or opponents of the president.

Mr Roberts, joined by the four liberals, wrote the decision that stymied the Trump administration’s attempt to undo an Obama-era policy known as Daca that protected non-citizens who came to the US as children from deportation.

The chief justice also wrote the court’s opinions in the cases regarding Mr Trump’s financial records on Thursday, with both Trump appointees — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — joining the majority to reject the president’s sweeping claims of immunity.

In the first major abortion case the Supreme Court has considered since the appointments of Mr Gorsuch and Mr Kavanaugh, Mr Roberts again joined the liberals to strike down a Louisiana law that placed restrictions on abortion clinics.

And Mr Gorsuch wrote a decision granting gay and transgender people protection from workplace discrimination, a landmark civil rights ruling joined by Mr Roberts and the four liberal justices.

Mr Trump’s response to the court this term has veered from atypically restrained to characteristically antagonistic. In response to the LGBTQ decision, he said simply: “They’ve ruled and we live with their decision.”

But he also loudly denounced other decisions, and sought to use the court’s rulings as a rallying cry for his re-election campaign. And he has portrayed himself as a victim: “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” he tweeted on Thursday.

The decisions challenged assumptions about the ideological make-up of the court in an election year that will decide which party’s candidate will fill one or more vacancies expected over the next four years.

In the Daca and Trump business records cases, in particular, the court rebuked Mr Trump’s declarations of near-absolute power.

“The majority, including Roberts, is not willing to accept the president’s very broad claims of executive power,” said Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, though he noted the court had also not wholesale accepted arguments of Mr Trump’s adversaries.

For example, in the case decided on Thursday regarding congressional requests for Mr Trump’s records, the court warned that lawmakers could not have free rein to go after whatever personal documents they wished.

The court sent the subpoenas issued by three Democratic-led House committees back to the lower courts for further review — meaning that Congress is unlikely to get access to Mr Trump’s records before the November election.

In another landmark separation of powers case involving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set up under the Obama administration following the 2008 financial crisis, the Supreme Court bolstered executive authority.

The court’s conservatives banded together to rule that Congress could not constrain the president’s power to fire the CFPB’s director, in line with ideas about the president’s absolute control over the executive branch held by conservative lawyers.

But the most significant wins for the right came in a trio of rulings that continued a push by Mr Roberts and the other conservative justices to bolster religious freedoms and rights.

Religious employers secured broader exemptions from employment laws for certain workers, and states were blocked from withholding government funds from faith schools if they were available to secular institutions.

This week, the court also allowed organisations an exemption from a mandate to provide contraceptive health coverage under the Affordable Care Act if they had religious or moral objections to birth control.

“There have been some significant victories for both the left and the right in this year’s term, if you want to crudely characterise it that way,” said Mr Somin.

Not all cases had partisan political salience. The court unanimously ruled that states could punish presidential electors who did not vote for the candidate who won their state.

A pair of cases put additional limits on white-collar crime enforcement. One 8-1 decision restricted the power of the Securities and Exchange Commission to claw back ill-gotten gains from fraudsters. A second, involving the “Bridgegate” New Jersey corruption scandal, found unanimously that an abuse of power was not necessarily a federal crime.

Mr Roberts this term rarely dissented — in one instance where he did, Mr Gorsuch joined with the liberals to deliver a landmark victory for Native American rights.

Time and again, he was in the majority, with his influence as chief justice bolstered by his new role as a key swing vote.

“It’s clearly Roberts’ court now,” said Ms Metzger.