House Can Obtain Trump’s Tax Returns From I.R.S., Appeals Court Says

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the House could gain access to former President Donald J. Trump’s tax returns, upholding a district court judge’s decision last year.

In a 28-page ruling, a panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that a federal law gives a House committee chairman broad authority to request them despite Mr. Trump’s status as a former president.

The Treasury Department refused to turn over the records during his administration. But after President Biden took office last year, the department determined that a renewed request from the House Ways and Means Committee, which said that it was studying a program that audits presidents, was valid.

The appeals court’s ruling does not necessarily mean that Congress will obtain the records. Mr. Trump’s legal team has vowed to fight the congressional effort “tooth and nail,” and he is virtually certain to appeal to the Supreme Court. If Republicans retake the House in the midterm elections and before there is any final judgment, the Ways and Means Committee would be led by a Republican and most likely drop the request.

The taxes case is rooted in Mr. Trump’s decision — first as a presidential candidate in the 2016 election and then in office — to break with modern precedent by refusing to make his tax returns public.

When Democrats won control of the House in 2018, they began trying to investigate his finances using congressional oversight powers. Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, testified that the president had boasted about inflating the value of assets when it served him and undervaluing them when it helped to lower his taxes.

But Mr. Trump pursued a strategy of using the slow pace of litigation to run out the clock on congressional oversight efforts. His administration’s Treasury Department refused to comply with the request, and the House filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce it in early July 2019. But the judge to which it was assigned — Trevor N. McFadden of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, whom Mr. Trump appointed in 2017 — was slow to make any ruling.

The stagnant case was reinvigorated after Mr. Trump left office last year. Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, issued a new request for the former president’s tax returns from 2015 to 2020. The Biden administration issued a Justice Department memorandum saying the panel was entitled to receive them.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers sought an injunction to block the request, saying it served no legitimate legislative purpose and contending that House Democrats’ real motivation was to expose his financial information for political gain. House lawyers said there were legislative reasons to seek the returns, including studying whether changes were needed to the I.R.S. program that audits presidents.

In December, nearly two and a half years after the House filed the case, Judge McFadden issued a ruling on it. While warning the committee that he did not think it would be wise for it to publish Mr. Trump’s tax returns, the judge ruled that the law entitled the panel to gain access to them.

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In the appeals court ruling on Tuesday upholding that decision, Judge David B. Sentelle also wrote that the law that gives the chairman of that panel broad authority to request any person’s tax returns was constitutional on its face. He said the request applying that law for Mr. Trump’s taxes did not violate separation-of-powers principles because it imposed only a minor burden on the executive branch.

Judge Sentelle also rejected an argument by Mr. Trump’s lawyers that the Treasury Department’s decision to comply with the request violated the former president’s First Amendment rights.

In a statement, Mr. Neal praised the decision.

“With great patience, we followed the judicial process, and yet again, our position has been affirmed by the courts,” he said. “I’m pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side. When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the I.R.S.’s mandatory presidential audit program.”

Judge Sentelle is a 1987 Reagan appointee. He was fully joined by Judge Robert L. Wilkins, a 2014 Obama appointee. The third judge on the panel, Karen L. Henderson, who was appointed in 1990 by President George Bush, joined the result and part of the majority reasoning.

But she wrote separately to express greater caution about the potential separation-of-powers issues raised by “Congress’s potential and incentive to threaten a sitting president with a post-presidency” request for tax returns “in order to influence the president while in office.”

Judge Henderson wrote: “Although I agree with my colleagues that the burdens imposed on the presidency by the committee’s request do not rise to the level of a separation-of-powers violation, I conclude that the burdens borne by the executive branch are more severe and warrant much closer scrutiny than my colleagues have given them.”

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