Judge to House Dems: No, you can’t speed up lawsuit for Trump’s tax returns


Are House Democrats feeling pressure to speed up their attempts to find dirt on Donald Trump? If so, the federal court most certainly is not. Judge Trevor McFadden shot down attempts by the House Ways and Means Committee in its lawsuit over Trump’s tax returns  to both get a summary judgment against the president and to expedite the case yesterday:

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Thursday rejected House Democrats’ effort to speed up their lawsuit over their request for President Trump’s federal tax returns. …

McFadden gave several reasons for denying the committee’s motion to expedite, as well as denying the motion for summary judgment as premature but allowing it to refile at a later time.

McFadden, perhaps sensitive to the potential of his appointment by Trump being used to criticize his decision, offered a broad spectrum of reasons for keeping this lawsuit on a normal track. First, a request for expedited treatment should have been made when the suit was filed, not nearly two months later. McFadden noted that the time hasn’t even elapsed for Trump to file motions in response to the original complaint, too, as well as the fact that Congress sets up specific circumstances for expedited treatment — and this case doesn’t fall into those categories.

Furthermore, other cases filed by House Democrats might well impact McFadden’s judgment, making both requests premature, he wrote:

More, as the Committee points out, the Administration and President Trump raised versions of some of their proposed arguments in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, No. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019) and Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, No. 19-1540 (2d Cir. 2019). See Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Expedite at 7. Those cases are pending before the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit, respectively. That related issues are percolating in other courts, particularly before the D.C. Circuit, suggests that a rush to judgment here would be unwise. Indeed, by first addressing the preliminary questions, the Court—and the parties—may benefit from guidance from the Circuit about issues-in-common with the matters on appeal.

McFadden most importantly notes that interbranch disputes such as these deal with important and complicated constitutional issues. Cases impacting the balance of power between co-equal branches should not be lightly handled:

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The Court is “aware that from the legislative viewpoint, any alternative to outright enforcement of the subpoena entails delay.” United States v. AT&T Co., 567 F.2d 121, 133 (D.C. Cir. 1977). But in inter-branch disputes like this one, “[t]he Separation of Powers often impairs efficiency, in terms of dispatch and the immediate functioning of the government.” Id. Indeed, “[i]t is the long-term staying power of government that is enhanced by the mutual accommodation required by the Separation of Powers.” Id. Such considerations and other factors counsel against rushing to judgment here.

This case presents novel and complex questions about the privileges and authority of all three branches of the federal government. “Few ideas are more central to the American political tradition than the doctrine of separation of powers.” U.S. House of Representatives v. Mnuchin, 379 F. Supp. 3d 8, 10 (D.D.C. 2019). The Committee asks the Court to wade into a dispute between the political branches about disclosing the President’s personal financial information over his objections.

Judge McFadden concluded that there may come a day when all bonds are broken between the branches and this lawsuit could get expedited, but yesterday was not that day:

It may be appropriate to expedite this matter at some point, but not now. The Committee has not justified its request to bypass the motion to dismiss stage and skip ahead to summary judgment. Indeed, by the time summary judgment is appropriate, this case might look very different. There may be new caselaw, new facts, and new parties. These factors also counsel for denying the Committee’s Motion for Summary Judgment now to allow it to re-file based on the latest legal and factual landscape later, rather than holding the current motion in abeyance.

So for House Democrats, it’s justice delayed … but perhaps not denied. The root of this case is 26 USC 6103, a statute which requires the Treasury Department to disclose any tax return requested by the Ways and Means chair, albeit in closed session. Rep. Richard Neal is on solid ground in this lawsuit, unless Trump’s attorneys can convince McFadden and/or appellate jurists that Neal has no legislative business looking at Trump’s finances. There is an argument to be made on limiting Congress’ ability to investigate, but it may not be enough to overcome the plain language of the statute.

This, then, is a temporary victory on a minor battleground. This one will go all the way to the Supreme Court, unless time runs out on either the House Democrats’ majority or Trump’s tenure as president.  Or both. That’s why Neal wanted this lawsuit expedited, and why McFadden won’t play along.

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