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Supreme Court to ponder Democratic lawmakers' lawsuit over Trump hotel documents

In a twist, the lawmakers are facing off against the Biden administration, which inherited the case from Trump.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to weigh whether individual Democratic members of Congress can pursue a lawsuit seeking government documents related to the former Trump International Hotel in Washington.

In a twist, the lawmakers are facing off against the Biden administration, which inherited the case after former President Donald Trump left office in 2021.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the administration, said in court papers that an appeals court decision allowing the lawsuit "contradicts historical practice stretching to the beginning of the Republic" and "threatens serious harm to all three branches of the federal government."

The former Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The former Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2022.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file

The appeals court decision upended the historical practice of administrations negotiating with Congress over information requests, she added.

The case arose from a 2013 decision by the General Services Administration, which oversees federal real estate, to lease the Old Post Office Building in Washington to the family-owned Trump Organization so it could operate a hotel.

The Trump International Hotel operated throughout Trump's term, raising legal, ethical and constitutional concerns, including over whether people paying for rooms there were seeking to influence the White House. Trump's company sold the lease last year and the hotel is now operating as a Waldorf Astoria.

When Trump won the 2016 election, 17 Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sought access to documents relating to the agreement, questioning whether Trump had a conflict of interest. (As a result of changes on the committee, including the death of Cummings in 2019, only five lawmakers remain involved in the case, according to the Justice Department.)

The House members submitted various requests, citing a federal law that requires executive agencies to provide information to members of Congress.

GSA, then controlled by the Trump administration, refused the request, although it later handed over many of the documents the lawmakers sought while withholding others.

The lawmakers in 2017 sued in federal court in Washington, seeking an order requiring GSA to disclose all the documents.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, saying the lawmakers did not have standing. Generally lawsuits can only move forward if the plaintiff can assert an injury that can be redressed by the court. The district court applied a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that said members of Congress cannot claim harm related to their official duties.

In a 2020 ruling issued just before Trump left office, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia revived the lawsuit, with a three-judge panel ruling 2-1 that the lawmakers had been harmed. The court cited freedom of information law, which allows people to sue when requests are rejected.

After Trump left office, the Biden administration sought a rehearing in the appeals court and then turned to the Supreme Court when that request was rejected.

Prelogar wrote that the appeals court ruling would allow the most outspoken members of Congress to enmesh any administration in lengthy litigation. Similarly, the decision weakens the ability of House and Senate leadership to control negotiations with the White House on such issues, she added.

Attorneys for the lawmakers wrote in court papers that there was no reason for the Supreme Court to get involved because the General Services Administration's normal practice is to grant document requests. With litigation under the specific federal law so rare, "there is no support for GSA’s speculation that it may become a breeding ground for abuse," they added.