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Briefings: Neal & Committee Prevail in Court Again in Trump Tax Quest…

Richard Neal

Can almost see them… (via YouTube/Ways & Means Cmte)

With the clock possibly ticking down on his party’s majority, a Washington appeals court has ruled House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal has a right to Donald Trump’s tax returns. The decision was the latest turn in a three year quest to obtain the real estate tycoon and provocateur’s tax records. This may not be over, but only if the Supreme Court intervenes.

The case kicked around the lower court ever since Neal became chairman in 2019. That April, he requested Trump’s 1040s and that of various Trump entities under an originally flapper-era law that lets Congress’s revenue committees obtain any tax return. Trump’s Treasury and Justice departments demurred and he fought on after President Joe Biden took office. This appeal sprang from an district court ruling unfavorable to Trump issued in December.

“The Trump Parties contend that the Chairman’s Request exceeds Congress’s investigative powers,” appellate Judge David Sentelle wrote. “It does not.”

Sentelle, along with Judge Robert Wilkins, who joined the opinion entirely, and Judge Karen Henderson, brushed off the arguments Trump’s lawyers had made.

“The Chairman has identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish. At this stage, it is not our place to delve deeper than this,” the opinion reads, rejecting the argument that Democrats’ ulterior motives void Congress’s right to investigate.

Neal hailed the ruling.

“With great patience, we followed the judicial process, and yet again, our position has been affirmed by the Courts. I’m pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side,” he said in a statement.  “When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program.”

The case has dragged on, in part, due to other judicial showdowns. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden repeatedly delayed ruling as the Appellate Court for the District of Columbia Circuit and the Supreme Court weighed Trump’s right to block congressional and New York grand jury subpoenas.

Neal had come under fire for not making the request sooner. However, he had argued he was following the advice of House counsel.

When Biden took office, his Justice Department greenlit a shift in position. Neal and his committee also reissued their request, but with more detail.

Prettyman Courthouse

Same DC courthouse, same ruling, different court of law. (via wikipedia)

As in district court, the Appeals Court rejected the idea that Congress had no legitimate legislative purpose in probing Trump’s tax returns. The IRS has a presidential audit program and Neal and his committee sought presidential tax returns to oversee it. The complexity of Trump’s business holdings only bolstered the case as it became resource question for the audit program.

That Democrats may be acting with partisan intent was not the concern of the courts. What matters is whether the stated purpose of the request is valid.

Representatives’ “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 decision read, citing a much older Supreme Court case.

The case also applied recent Supreme Court rulings on whether such requests violate separation of powers. Because Trump has left office it was unclear which standard the Appeals Court should use. It found, however, that the Committee made its case under even the onerous standard Trump wanted the court to apply.

“Regardless, neither burden, under any test, proves sufficient to require us to enjoin the Chairman’s Request for the returns and return information,” Sentelle writes.

The Court quickly dispensed with a facial constitutional challenges to the law Neal invoked. It also did not dwell on the request’s origin in statute rather than subpoena.

Trump has 10 days to appeal as he historically has in these battles with Congress and investigators. Since ruling against Trump in 2020, the Supreme Court has not been terribly interested in his appeals. There are few new issues and the majorities in those cases exceed the size of the shift in the Court’s posture.

Still, if the Court took the case and granted a stay, it would like push a ruling beyond the November election. If Republicans take the House, they would withdraw the tax return request. However, if Democrats hold the Senate, nothing would stop them from pursuing the case from there.