A lawyer from Maine will make his first-ever oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday as he represents President Trump in his long-fought battle to prevent the release of his federal income tax returns.

Patrick Strawbridge of North Yarmouth, a partner with the firm Consovoy McCarthy of Boston and Washington, D.C., will make oral arguments by telephone in a historic and unusual proceeding as the court conducts its business remotely to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

Patrick Strawbridge

At the heart of the case is the separation of powers clause in the U.S. Constitution and the question of whether Congress can compel a sitting president to release private financial records.

Strawbridge said the presentation would be his first personally and the fourth his firm has argued before the high court.

“The President’s legal team reached out to us and asked us to get involved in representing the President on some key constitutional matters several years ago; we are honored to contribute to such important work,” Strawbridge said in an email Saturday.

Strawbridge will be asking the justices to overturn a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that opens the door for two banks that financed Trump’s businesses, as well as his accountants, to release years of personal financial records from Trump, his three eldest children and the president’s companies to two U.S. House committees.

Strawbridge and one of his partners, William Consovoy, have represented Trump on the matter in the lower courts, trying to block the banks and accountants from releasing the documents requested by Congress. Both Consovoy and Strawbridge served as clerks to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 2008.

The U.S. House Financial Services and Intelligence committees sought records from Trump’s largest creditors, Deutsche Bank and Capitol One, in April 2019, saying they needed the information to create new laws to guard against illegal Russian money laundering and conflicts of interest involving the president.

But Trump, who is the first president in 40 years to not publicly release his federal tax returns, has argued Congress doesn’t need the information to create law but wants it instead for political and law enforcement purposes.

“These cases raise serious and unprecedented issues; never before have Committees of Congress attempted to subpoena such a wide swath of personal records from the President,” Strawbridge said. “If they are deemed to have that power, it has serious implications for all future Presidents.”

The unusual telephonic proceedings Tuesday will involve three attorneys: one for the House committees, one for the federal government and Strawbridge for Trump, presenting their oral arguments to the court in presentations of less than two minutes each. The justices will take turns, based on seniority, asking questions of the lawyers. They will then deliberate in private before voting on the case. The justices could also decide they have no jurisdiction in the case if they determine it is political in nature, which would allow the lower court ruling to stand.

Strawbridge said he would be making his argument using the phone in his home office in North Yarmouth. He would not discuss his conversations with Trump or say how it was that the president selected his firm for the work, citing attorney-client confidentiality.

“The court’s telephonic argument process is a little more structured than its in-person arguments, but I think the Court has done an admirable job of finding a way to continue its business,” Strawbridge said about the challenges of appearing remotely. “I’ve had the opportunity to do a few other court hearings telephonically, so it’s something we are all getting familiar with these days.”

In late April the court asked attorneys in the matter to submit additional briefs addressing the so-called “political question doctrine,” and whether the court has the authority to intervene in matters the Constitution entrusts to the other branches of government.

Strawbridge has argued previously that Congress appears to be seeking the records in an attempt at law enforcement, powers exclusive to the executive branch of government. He has also said the broad scope of the request for financial records goes well beyond what’s needed to create new legislation.

In 2016, during his campaign for the presidency, Trump said he couldn’t release his tax records because they were under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, but he has since launched a multi-court effort to prevent his banks and accountants from releasing the records.

Lawmakers did not begin to vigorously seek the records until after Democrats gained the majority in the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

If the court sides with the U.S. House or decides against ruling on the matter, Trump’s tax returns could be made public before the elections this November.

David Schultz, a political science professor and legal scholar at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the case is unique both in substance and how it will be deliberated before the court.

Schultz said the nation’s highest law court began testing whether it could hold sessions remotely in response to COVID-19 on May 4 and the format presents new challenges for both the justices and attorneys representing their clients.

“The distance format poses challenges to attorneys used to facing the Court and reading body expressions, but also to the Justices who are used to interrupting the attorneys and one another,” Schultz said in an email to the Portland Press Herald. “We are still on new ground to see what all this means and whether the new format affects decision making.”

The case is also important in the constitutional questions it will attempt to answer, Schultz said.

“It tests the limits of federalism (state grand jury demands upon the president) and separation of powers (Congress requesting presidential tax records),” Schultz wrote. But there is also precedent for the court to look to, Schultz added, pointing to a 1974 case involving President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal – when the court ruled that “the needs of a criminal investigation to determine possible illegal behavior in the executive branch outweighed any claims of presidential executive privilege. By that, the need of the courts and a criminal grand jury to do their job were weightier than any constitutional claims the president could make to refuse to deliver the documents.”

Schultz said it will be interesting to see if the conservative majority of the current Supreme Court, including two relatively new justices (Neil Gorsuch and Brent Kavanaugh) appointed by Trump and led by Chief Justice John Roberts, will follow that precedent.

“So far the Roberts Court has largely upheld presidential power; it will be curious to see if it does again,” Schultz said. But other precedents set by the court would also seem to be on the side of Congress, Schultz said.

“The Supreme Court has long upheld broad oversight power for Congress over the executive branch as part of the checks and balances,” he said.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said it was not unusual for a sitting president to have a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the recent examples of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Two things are unusual about this case: it involves personal presidential records and is about matters from before the President took office,” Melcher wrote in an email. “In theory, it could also become an issue in the presidential campaign, and that cannot be said of a lot of Supreme Court cases.”

Melcher also referenced the Nixon case, which his students have been studying during the last semester. He said the Trump case was quite different and may have more in common with a case involving President Bill Clinton and whether he could be compelled to testify in a lawsuit involving Paula Jones and concerning Clinton’s conduct while he was governor of Arkansas.

“The current cases combine elements of both cases,” Melcher said. “Both presidents (Nixon and Clinton) lost those cases unanimously, but I expect the current issue to be closer than those were.”

Strawbridge, the North Yarmouth attorney, has also represented former Maine Gov. Paul LePage and his administration in cases before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and in the federal courts, including successfully defending LePage in a lawsuit filed by former Maine House Speaker Mark Eves.

Eves was fired after a brief tenure as president of the Good Will-Hinckley school in Fairfield in 2015 after LePage threatened to withhold state funding for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a public charter school for at-risk students run by Good Will-Hinckley.

A federal judge in Maine, in the case argued by Strawbridge, ruled that the governor had immunity from lawsuits over funding decisions, and a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston agreed.


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