DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On the final day of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a defeat to President Trump today, ruling that he cannot block a New York grand jury from seeing his financial records from before his time in office. Now, in a separate case, however, the court ruled that Congress won't get access to the president's financial and business records, though the court is sending that case back to a lower court. To understand moments like this, we often turn to constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Baltimore, a frequent guest on this program, Kim Wehle. Thanks for being here as always.
KIM WEHLE: Happy to be here.
GREENE: So this first case dealing with this grand jury in New York State, this is a grand jury looking into possible financial wrongdoing that started with lawyer Michael Cohen testifying that he helped pay women who had alleged affairs with the president to keep them quiet. What is the court saying here today?
WEHLE: Well, there's a couple things that's important - that are important to keep in mind about this particular case. One is that the subpoena is not going to Mr. Trump personally or to the White House. It's going to a third party, his accounting firm. And the second is that we have here a state criminal investigation. This does not involve a separation of powers question, that is the power of the branch - the various three branches of government. And the court's essentially saying here that the president cannot stop an accounting firm from turning over a valid subpoena or turning over documents pursuant to a valid criminal subpoena from a state court.
And the court looks like it went back to the case involving President Clinton in which the Supreme Court held unanimously that a sitting president can't avoid a civil deposition subpoena in a case involving alleged sexual harassment and a request for money damages. If that's OK for a president to have to respond to, then a criminal investigation, a subpoena relating to that from the state DA, that is something that he cannot ignore.
GREENE: OK, so then in a separate case, though, it seems like the court's saying that Congress does not have the same right to these kinds of financial records. What - why did the court take a different position here?
WEHLE: Right. So whereas the first case involved the state prosecutor, the second case does involve core - what we call separation of powers concerns. And the court is concerned that Congress would be given authority to essentially conduct criminal investigations of a president on purely political grounds. But what's important here, I mean, Justice Thomas dissented. The court did not say Congress cannot issue these subpoenas. Again, these subpoenas were from three House committees to third parties, the same accounting firm as well as two banks.
So this did not involve executive privilege, for example. That makes it different from the Nixon case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended up producing the famous tapes that led to Nixon's resignation. But here the court actually, it looks like, created a new test, sent the case back to the lower court and said you - Congress might be able to get this information, but it needs to make a much more particularized showing to convince us that this isn't political, that this is legitimately related to a legislative purpose. So Congress can go back, revise and, ultimately, get the information.
GREENE: OK, so especially in that case, a lot of unanswered questions remain it sounds like.
WEHLE: Yeah. Well, we're going to have to see. It certainly won't be resolved prior to the election.
GREENE: All right. Kim Wehle is a law professor at the University of Baltimore, as well as the author of "What You Need To Know About Voting And Why." Kim, thank you so much.
WEHLE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.