The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered the dismissal of Maryland’s claim that Donald Trump committed corruption of constitutional consequence in the handling of his Washington hotel while president.
Without explanation, the justices declared the state’s lawsuit moot before ordering the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the case alleging Trump had violated the constitutional prohibition on president’s receiving emoluments, or payment, from foreign leaders and state officials, which he allegedly did when they visited or stayed at the Trump International Hotel..
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Justice Department attorneys had agreed that the constitutional claim against Trump was rendered moot when he left office Jan. 20 and was replaced by President Joe Biden.
“Presidents have historically complied with the Emoluments Clauses, and there is every reason to expect that future presidents – including President-Elect Biden – will do so,” Frosh wrote in papers he filed at the Supreme Court last month with District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who joined Maryland’s suit.
“In any event, were an issue concerning a president’s compliance with the Emoluments Clauses to arise in the future, and if litigation were to be filed relating to that alleged noncompliance, the issues presented would not evade judicial review in the normal course,” Frosh and Racine added. “Because this case will become moot when President-Elect Biden assumes the office of president in January 2021, this (Supreme) Court’s intervention … would be both pointless and unwarranted.”
Frosh and Racine, both Democrats, alleged Trump, a Republican, violated the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
Trump challenged the lawsuit on several grounds, including that Maryland and the District of Columbia lacked standing to bring the emoluments claim.
But the 4th Circuit allowed the lawsuit to proceed last May, stating that the clauses impose a “restraint” on presidents, which they are bound to follow.
Trump, then president, appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, resulting in the justices vacating the 4th Circuit’s ruling and ordering the case dismissed.
The case was docketed at the high court as Donald J. Trump, President of the United States v. District of Columbia et al., No. 20-331.
“We are proud that because of our case, a court ruled on the meaning of ‘emoluments’ for the first time in American history, finding that the Constitution prohibits federal officials from accepting almost anything of value from foreign or domestic governments,” Frosh and Racine said in a joint statement after the justices issued their order for dismissal.
“This decision will serve as precedent that will help stop anyone else from using the presidency or other federal office for personal financial gain the way that President Trump has over the past four years,” the attorneys general added. “Our case proves once again that in our country no one – not even the president of the United States — is above the law.”
Trump has denied the allegations of constitutional wrongdoing.
Frosh’s emoluments lawsuit against Trump drew scorn from Republican state legislators who said Maryland’s attorney general should focus on the state’s pressing concerns and not politically motivated lawsuits.
The criticism did not end with the dismissal.
“The AG is supposed to be the lead attorney for all of Maryland and that office should be a catalyst for unifying us all as citizens of a nation of laws,” Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said Monday afternoon. “The credibility and legitimacy of the AG and law enforcement in general is ill-served when that office is used for political purposes.”
But Kimberly Wehle, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor, called the lawsuit brought by Frosh and Racine a worthwhile attempt to enforce the Constitution’s prohibition on presidents using the office to receive “personal goodies” from foreign or domestic dignitaries.
“If it is not enforced, it becomes meaningless and irrelevant,” said Wehle, author of “How to Read the Constitution – and Why,”published by HarperCollins in 2019.
The 4th Circuit’s 9-6 decision last May displaced a ruling by a three-judge panel of the court that called for dismissing the lawsuit. The panel said Maryland and the District’s merely “generalized grievance” that the hotel was pulling business away from a nearby Maryland conference center and other hotels in Washington was insufficient to bring the constitutional claim.
The full 4th Circuit’s decision reinstated U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte’s decision that the lawsuit could proceed and that Maryland and the District could seek documents and pretrial testimony regarding Trump’s Washington hotel, including possibly guest lists and payment receipts.
Frosh and Racine filed suit in 2017, seeking a declaratory judgment from the district court that Trump violated the Emoluments Clause, an order that he stop and any other relief that the court deemed “just and proper.”