The Supreme Court has a new mixed drink: it’s five parts formalism to four parts functionalism, with a splash of Humphrey’s Executor. This new drink was on full display in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, in which five Justices concluded that Congress violated the separation of powers when it placed limits on the President’s power to fire the CFPB’s director. Those five Justices used what’s called the “formalist” approach, prevailing over the competing “functionalist” approach adopted by the four dissenting Justices. Throughout history, the Court has oscillated between formalism and functionalism, especially in cases involving the President’s power to remove public officials. For the latter half of the 20th century, functionalism appeared to be the dominant approach to removal-power cases—until two recent decisions from the Roberts court. Might formalism now be seeing a resurgence?
In an historic decision yesterday, Chief Justice Roberts held for a 7:2 majority that a sitting president isn’t absolutely immune from a state grand jury subpoena seeking the president’s private documents, and that a state prosecutor need not show a “heightened need” for such documents. It is a resounding legal defeat for President Trump, who had challenged the authority of a state district attorney to subpoena Trump’s personal and corporate financial records. But the decision may be a political win; more likely than not, Trump will be able to stave off the release of his tax records until after the November election. Here is a recap of the Court’s decision in Trump v. Vance.