Like so many of the rest of us, the justices of the US Supreme Court are working from home to protect themselves and others from Covid-19. While they issued opinions this week, hearings are indefinitely postponed, most notably in three controversial cases involving US president Donald Trump’s taxes and financial records scheduled for oral arguments on March 31.
At this point, the public has no clue when oral arguments will resume and many progressive legal activist groups are unhappy about the lack of transparency when it comes to the Trump cases especially. “The Roberts court has been protecting Donald Trump by stopping investigators from reviewing Trump’s financial records for too long already. Lower courts around the country have put measures in place that comply with public health guidelines while enabling them to decide time-sensitive cases, and the Supreme Court should follow suit,” Christopher Kang, chief counsel of Demand Justice, told Quartz.
Trump, unlike any other president in recent history, has been secretive about his financial dealings prior to taking office. He did not make his tax documents available like every one of his predecessors in the past four decades, for example. This secrecy is particularly troubling to some because this particular chief executive and his family have done a ton of deals and continue to run a business empire.
Demand Justice and a coalition of progressive activist groups, including the Center for Popular Democracy, Common Cause, Indivisible, People for the American Way, and Stand Up—are demanding to know the justices’ plan to decide the disclosure cases. They ague that the president personally benefits from the high court’s delay and that these cases require prompt action. All the more so now that the government is planning to boost the economy with a $2 trillion stimulus plan that will provide billions of dollars to industry and be overseen by the executive branch.
“Trump’s attempts to declare himself above the law shouldn’t be receiving special treatment. With the executive branch likely to be overseeing huge amounts of support to the private sector, it’s more important than ever that Congress be able to conduct oversight into Trump’s financial dealings,” Kang explained.
The cases at the high court involve subpoenas to third parties for Trump’s taxes and financial records from before he was president, and two of them stem from congressional oversight requests related to the formulation of new ethics rules. Trump intervened in the cases, arguing that his records are shielded from disclosure under principles of executive power. Lower courts disagree and the subpoenaed parties—Trump’s accounting firm and major financial institutions like Deutsche Bank—say they’ll turn over the documents if ordered to do so.
Trump appealed the lower court rulings to the Supreme Court. Now the matters are on hold, shielding the president from these disclosures for who knows how much longer. Activist groups say the delay is essentially a win for the president. “Delaying this case is effectively picking a side. Every day that Trump is allowed to keep his tax returns secret is a day that he has won and the public has lost. The only reason investigators do not currently have access to Donald Trump’s tax returns and financial records is that the Supreme Court stayed three correctly-decided lower court rulings then declined to hear the cases on an expedited basis,” the coalition argues.
The activists are not asking the justices to risk their health by holding public hearings in open court. What they want is swift resolution and they say that is possible even under the current unprecedented conditions. The high court hasn’t had to shut down like it did this month since 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the globe. Since then, there have been quite a few technological developments that make it possible to hold court remotely, of course. Some US courts are hearing oral arguments via video chat, for example.
But the high court is not like other tribunals. It decides the most important cases of the day but in some ways operates as if this was another age. The justices have long resisted ever-mounting pressures to allow cameras in the courtroom and to livestream hearings for the public’s benefit. And based on the court’s communication with respect to the current closure, which noted that justices would hold telephonic conferences among themselves, it’s obvious that they are not exactly prepared to catch up with the countless people and institutions worldwide who are now convening electronically via video conference.
Demand Justice and others argue that this old-timey approach is highly problematic when it comes to the Trump finance matters. The president, who is so vocal on social media, has been exceptionally secretive about his financial dealings prior to taking office. He has long thwarted congressional and state authorities’ efforts to review records from the time when he was a private citizen, which they say would shed light on what new ethics rules are required. Meanwhile, Trump’s arguments about executive power have been repeatedly rejected by judges. Progressive activists say the court must either decide these cases before the end of the term in June or allow those lower court decisions demanding disclosure to stand.
“While it is appropriate to suspend in-person oral arguments in accordance with public health guidelines and to delay some other cases, the court’s failure to make alternative arrangements in this time-sensitive case only serves to sanction Trump’s stonewalling of investigators by indefinitely interfering with lawful subpoenas,” the activist groups argue. “Whatever solution the court adopts must also allow Americans transparency into the process by live-streaming whatever arguments do take place in real time.”