By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday temporarily blocked a U.S. House of Representatives committee from gaining access to former President Donald Trump's tax returns, effectively pausing the fight over a request from lawmakers that he claims is politically motivated.
The order from the chief justice maintains the status quo while the Supreme Court assesses Trump's emergency request, filed on Monday, to block a lower court ruling that upheld the House panel's request for the tax materials as a justified part of its legislative work, while his attorneys prepare an appeal.
Roberts ordered the Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee to respond to Trump's bid by Nov. 10. That is two days after the U.S. midterm elections in which Trump's fellow Republicans are seeking to regain control of Congress.
The legal fight has lingered since 2019 when the committee sued Trump to force disclosure of the tax returns. Trump was the first president in four decades years not to release his tax returns as he aimed to keep secret the details of his wealth and the activities of his company, the Trump Organization.
Allowing the lower court decision to stand would "undermine the separation of powers and render the office of the Presidency vulnerable to invasive information demands from political opponents in the legislative branch," Trump's lawyers wrote, referring to the division of authority among the three branches of the U.S. government.
The committee's purpose is "exposing President Trump's tax information to the public for the sake of exposure," the lawyers added.
The committee in its request invoked a federal law that empowers its chairman to request any person's tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service.
House Democrats have said they need Trump's tax returns to see if the IRS is properly auditing presidential returns and to assess whether new legislation is needed. Trump's lawyers have called that explanation "pretextual" and "disingenuous," saying the real aim is to unearth politically damaging information about Trump, who is considering another run for the presidency in 2024.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, sided with Congress in December 2021 and threw out the case, finding that the committee holds broad authority over a former president's tax returns.
Trump is "wrong on the law," McFadden wrote in his ruling.
"A long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference to facially valid congressional inquiries. Even the special solicitude accorded former presidents does not alter the outcome," McFadden added.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in August also ruled against Trump, concluding that "every president takes office knowing that he will be subject to the same laws as all other citizens upon leaving office." The D.C. Circuit on Oct. 27 refused a rehearing.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)