Appeals court allows emoluments suit against Trump to proceed

click to enlarge The Trump International Hotel in Washington on April 21, 2020. The State of Maryland and the District of Columbia are pursuing a suit saying the president’s ownership of the hotel violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause. - ANNA MONEYMAKER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
The Trump International Hotel in Washington on April 21, 2020. The State of Maryland and the District of Columbia are pursuing a suit saying the president’s ownership of the hotel violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
By Sharon LaFraniere
The New York Times Company


WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court in Virginia on Thursday revived a lawsuit accusing President Donald Trump of violating the Constitution by profiting from his Washington hotel, a decision that will most likely lead the Justice Department to appeal to the Supreme Court to keep the plaintiffs from gathering evidence in the case.

“We recognize that the president is no ordinary petitioner, and we accord him great deference as the head of the executive branch,” the majority opinion from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. “But Congress and the Supreme Court have severely limited our ability to grant the extraordinary relief the president seeks.”


The 15-member appeals court in Richmond met in December to consider whether a three-judge appellate panel had wrongly dismissed the lawsuit over the Trump International Hotel brought by the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland.

The Justice Department asked the full appeals court to either uphold the panel’s ruling or allow the department to appeal the lower court judge’s procedural rulings against the president, an emergency form of relief that is rarely allowed when a case is in midstream.

The attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland are arguing that Trump’s interest in the hotel violates the Constitution’s bans on accepting benefits or “emoluments” from state or foreign governments. Government officials from Maine to Saudi Arabia have patronized the 263-room luxury property.

The local jurisdictions claim they have standing to sue because the Trump hotel competes with hotels and convention centers in their areas.


The Justice Department contends that the president cannot be sued for violating the emoluments bans without the express authorization of Congress and that the plaintiffs want to engage in a fishing expedition for documents for blatantly political reasons.

The appeals court split 9-6 over the decision. The two dissenting opinions and one concurring opinion revealed a wide gap between the justices. Eight of the nine judges who favored allowing the lawsuit to go forward were appointed by Democratic presidents. The ninth, Chief Judge Roger Gregory, was a recess appointment by President Bill Clinton and then was reappointed by President George W. Bush. All those in opposition were appointed by Republican presidents.

Legal experts said the Justice Department is now likely to seek an administrative stay of the case so it can appeal to the Supreme Court.

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