WASHINGTON — A federal district judge in Washington ruled on Tuesday that congressional Democrats could proceed with a lawsuit claiming that President Trump was violating the Constitution by continuing to profit from his businesses while president.
The decision by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia is at least a temporary victory for the president’s critics who assert that he is willfully flouting constitutional bans meant to restrict the ability of any federal official to accept financial benefits from foreign governments.
But the Justice Department is likely to quickly appeal the ruling on the so-called emoluments clauses. The department’s lawyers have already appealed a similar decision by another federal judge in Maryland. A three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., is expected to rule on that appeal soon, probably in the president’s favor.
A second appeal of Tuesday’s decision, this time to the less conservative Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, would place the same issue before two appellate panels. But the Justice Department has little choice but to appeal Judge Sullivan’s ruling because plaintiffs in that case will otherwise be able to begin gathering evidence about Mr. Trump’s personal and corporate finances.
“This sets up a dilemma for the government,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “I think it is going to be fascinating.”
Ultimately, legal experts say, the question of whether such suits against the president can proceed is destined for the Supreme Court, perhaps as early as this year. Until Mr. Trump took office, the meaning of the Constitution’s emoluments bans had never been litigated.
The consequences are potentially momentous. If either lawsuit moves ahead, Mr. Trump will be forced to disclose financial details of business operations that he has long fought to keep out of public view. If the Justice Department succeeds in stopping them, the president will be vindicated in his decision not to divorce himself from his business empire while in office.
Judge Sullivan’s 48-page opinion largely dovetailed with previous opinions in the first case, overseen by Judge Peter J. Messitte of Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Md.
The complaints in the two cases are similar. In the case before Judge Sullivan, congressional Democrats contend that Mr. Trump has failed to abide by the Constitution’s requirement that he seek Congress’s approval before accepting financial benefits from foreign governments, such as trademark registrations of the Trump brand and payments by foreign officials who book rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
In the case before Judge Messitte, the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland assert that Mr. Trump’s ownership of his Washington hotel illegally drains away business from competing local hotels and convention centers.
Like Judge Messitte, Judge Sullivan ruled that the Justice Department’s definition of an emolument was too narrow. Essentially, he decided, the department claims that the president is allowed to accept any kind of payment from a foreign government as long as it was not a bribe.
But the Constitution’s framers meant not only to rule out bribes, he wrote, but also “to guard against even the possibility” of corruption and foreign influence.
“The president’s definition,” his opinion states, “disregards the ordinary meaning of the term as set forth in the vast majority of founding-era dictionaries; is inconsistent with the text, structure, historical interpretation, adoption, and purpose of the clause; and is contrary to executive branch practice over the course of many years.”
Judge Sullivan said his view was supported by Judge Messitte, a string of decisions by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and “overwhelming evidence pointing to over two hundred years of understanding the scope of the clause.”