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Supreme Court to end 2020 term with a much-anticipated ruling on Trump’s tax returns

The Supreme Court justices.
The U.S. Supreme Court justices.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A Supreme Court term that has featured more than its share of surprises is due to end on Thursday, when the justices rule on President Trump’s bid to block demands for his financial records and tax returns from House Democrats and a New York grand jury.

The court will also decide whether much of eastern Oklahoma is part of the Creek Nation because Congress did not formally cede that territory to the new state.

Trump is counting on the court to protect him from subpoenas issued by three House committees and a New York grand jury that seek financial records held by his accountant or by Deutsche Bank, which made large loans to Trump’s properties. Trump sued to block the subpoenas but lost in three lower courts.

The anticipated decision will mark the end to an unprecedented term, rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and first live audio broadcasts of oral arguments, conducted via telephone as justices remained at home.

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It was also a term that delivered several surprising victories for liberals despite the court’s conservative majority.

One surprise ruling extended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ employees, and another blocked Trump’s repeal of the Obama-era program that protects the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted with the four liberals in both cases, triggering dismay and dissent among his colleagues on the right.

The chief justice also cast the deciding vote to strike down a Louisiana law limiting abortions.

Here’s a look at the major cases still pending, and the significant rulings so far:

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Cases pending:

Trump and financial records

May a House committee or a New York grand jury require President Trump’s accountants and bankers to turn over records revealing his personal tax returns and financial dealings?

The president says his status as chief executive gives him an “absolute immunity” from such demands, while House Democrats say Congress has a nearly unlimited right to demand confidential information so as to carry out oversight and investigations. And New York prosecutors who are looking into Trump’s alleged hush-money payments said grand juries have very broad authority to subpoena records.

In the past, the court stood strong and united against presidents who claimed immunity when they faced charges of wrongdoing. President Nixon lost unanimously in 1974 when he tried to shield the Watergate tapes from investigators, and President Clinton lost unanimously in 1997 when he sought a temporary immunity from responding to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

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But the justices did not sound united during the arguments held in May. Rather, their questions and comments hinted the court might hand down a mixed decision or an opinion that’s not a clear win for either side. (Trump vs. Mazars USA and Trump vs. Vance)

Cases Decided:

Abortion and clinic doctors

May a state require that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles?

No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in June Medical Services vs. Russo.

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Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined by the three other liberal justices said the admitting privileges rule would do more harm than good for pregnant women because it would likely result in the closing of all but one of the state’s abortion providers. The chief justice concurred in the outcome based on precedent. The court had struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh dissented.

LGBTQ and workplace rights

Do the federal civil rights laws protect LGBTQ employees from discrimination in the workplace nationwide?

Yes, the court said in a 6-3 ruling citing the words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says employers may not fire or refuse to hire employees based on their race, religion, sex or national origin. And the court decided that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is discrimination based on sex.

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Justice Gorsuch wrote the court’s opinion. He agreed that lawmakers in 1964 may not have intended to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer employees, but he said the court relies on the words of the law, not the aims of the lawmakers. (Bostock vs. Clayton County) Justices Thomas, Alito and Kavanaugh dissented.

Dreamers and immigration law

Has Trump lawfully repealed the Obama-era order that shielded the young immigrants who were brought to this country as children?

No, the court said in a 5-4 ruling written by Chief Justice Roberts. He said that while the president had the legal authority to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, his administration failed to give a reasoned explanation for ending a policy that encouraged about 700,000 immigrants to register with the government to obtain work permits and avoid deportation. While Trump had authority under the immigration laws to change past policies, his administration failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, the court said in Department of Homeland Security vs. Regents of the University of California.

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Trump’s aides had relied on former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and his questionable claim that the policy was illegal from the start. In dissent were Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

Religion and schools

May a state exclude church schools from a state-sponsored tuition aid program that supports students in other private schools, or does that exclusion amount to unconstitutional discrimination against religion?

It is unconstitutional discrimination based on religion, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in Espinoza vs. Montana. The Montana Supreme Court has blocked the $500 grants on the grounds that state’s constitution, like those of most states, forbids giving tax money to churches or their affiliates. But Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the court, said the discriminatory policy violates the 1st Amendment and its protection for the free exercise of religion. In dissent were Justices Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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President and independent agencies

Did Congress violate the separation of powers and the president’s executive authority when it created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 as an “independent bureau,” which would be led by a director who was appointed by the president but could not be fired except for “neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.”

Yes, the court said in a 5-4 ruling in Seila Law vs. CFPB. Chief Justice Roberts said that putting a single director in charge of the agency and giving him a fixed term violates the president’s executive authority. He said the president must be authorized to remove top officials. But the chief justice said his opinion did not extend to independent agencies which are governed by a board or by multiple commissioners.

Religion and teachers

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Are church-run schools entitled to a religious exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws when it comes to hiring and firing teachers ?

Yes, the court said in a 7-2 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru. The decision, based on two cases from Los Angeles County, tossed out discrimination lawsuits filed by two former teachers who taught fifth grade. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the 1st Amendment and its protection for the free exercise of religion means the government cannot tell a church whom to employ for positions at a church school if the church deems those jobs critical to its religious mission. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.

Electoral college and states

Can a state require its appointed electors to cast their presidential ballots in the electoral college for the candidate who won the most popular support in the state?

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Yes, the court said in a 9-0 ruling in Chiafalo vs. Washington. The justices overturned a ruling by a federal appeals court in Denver which held that the Constitution as written in 1787 envisioned that electors were free to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. Writing for the court, Justice Kagan said that while that may been understood at the start, the electoral college became by the early 1800s a means of tallying the votes of the states. In nearly every state, all the electoral votes to go the presidential candidate who won the state’s popular vote. The electors are “not free agents,” she said.

Religion and Birth Control

May the Trump administration exempt employers who cite religious or moral objections from part of the Affordable Care Act that requires providing no-cost contraceptives to employees?

Yes, the court said by a 7-2 vote in Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Pennsylvania. The decision overturned a ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court in Philadelphia which had blocked the Trump rule from taking effect on both legal and procedural grounds. Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, said the administration had the legal authority to carve out broader religious exemption for employers. But the 3rd Circuit did not rule on whether the regulation violated the Administrative Procedure Act, so the ruling is not final. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.


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