Supreme Court Wrap-Up

Contributed by Megan Muoio, July 30, 2020

The Supreme Court’s October 2019 term came to an end on July 9, 2020. During this momentous term, the Court seated hotly contested Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John Roberts oversaw the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, and the Court issued decisions in many consequential cases. The July 9th decision day was the latest ending of a Supreme Court term since 1988. The Supreme Court issued opinions in three closely watched cases which were argued virtually in May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump v. Vance involved Trump’s challenge to a subpoena duces tecum issued by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance seeking Trump’s financial records. The United States District Court for the Southern District and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals both rejected the President’s request to block the subpoena. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Trump argued that a sitting President is categorically immune to a criminal grand jury subpoena or, alternatively, that a higher standard should apply in his circumstance. By a majority of 7-2, the Supreme Court disagreed. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, rejected Trump’s argument that the President is too busy to respond to state criminal subpoenas. The majority also did not credit Trump’s argument that permitting the enforcement of the subpoena by Vance would subject the Office of the President to harassment from district attorneys around the country. The Court sent the matter back to the District Court, where Trump will be able to raise challenges to the breadth and scope of the subpoena. On July 17, 2020, Vance successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for its order to go into effect immediately so that the subpoena could be resolved quickly. Although the matter may be resolved prior to the 2020 Presidential election, it is unlikely that any documents produced will be made public before November.

In a second case involving the President, the Court issued another 7-2 opinion in Trump v. Mazars, which involved subpoenas issued by committees in the U.S. House of Representatives on Trump’s personal accountant. The Mazars case came to the Supreme Court on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was consolidated with another Congressional subpoena case on appeal from the Second Circuit, Trump v. Deutsche Bank. Chief Justice John Roberts again wrote for the majority, holding that a sitting President is not entitled to a higher standard of review when his personal records are sought by Congressional subpoena, as Trump had argued. Instead, the Court held that the review of a Congressional subpoena should include “a careful analysis that takes adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the ‘unique position’ of the President.” In performing this analysis, the reviewing court should consider whether the information could be sought elsewhere, whether the subpoena is as limited in scope as possible, whether Congress can demonstrate that the subpoena advances a legitimate legislative purpose, and what burden the subpoena places on the Office of the President. The Court then sent the matter back to the lower courts for consideration of those factors, which is unlikely to be completed before the Presidential election in November.

And finally, in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Court held that a large portion of northeastern Oklahoma remains a reservation for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, thereby depriving the State of Oklahoma of jurisdiction over crimes committed there by Native Americans. James McGirt, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, was tried and convicted in Oklahoma State Court for sexual offenses committed on the reservation. McGirt appealed his conviction, arguing that the federal government had not disestablished the reservation and, therefore, Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction over his crimes. The majority opinion, penned by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by the four liberal Justices, rejected the State of Oklahoma’s arguments that the reservation was disestablished by a variety of non-specific federal laws or Oklahoma’s practice of allotment. The Court also rejected Oklahoma’s argument that the history and demographics of Oklahoma demonstrated the disestablishment of the reservation, deeming that argument “substituting stories for statutes” and preferencing the “rule of the strong” over the rule of law. Instead, the Court held that only Congress holds the power to disestablish a Native American reservation and that “[b]ecause Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.” Finally, the Court rejected Oklahoma’s claim that such a decision would destabilize the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and subject Oklahoma to numerous appeals on behalf of Native American defendants tried in state court for crimes committed on tribal lands.

The Court will be recessed until the first Monday in October for the start of the October 2020 term. At that time, they will hear arguments in a number of highly-anticipated cases, including: continued challenges to the Affordable Care Act; a First Amendment challenge to the City of Philadelphia’s requirement that foster care agencies not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; and a criminal case seeking to further refine what a “seizure” is for purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.


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