WASHINGTON — A lawsuit accusing President Trump of violating the Constitution by refusing to divorce himself from his businesses cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday when a federal judge in #Maryland refused the Justice Department’s plea to dismiss it.
In a 47-page opinion, Judge Peter J. Messitte rejected the federal government’s claims that the plaintiffs had not shown that they had suffered injuries that a court could address.
The suit, filed by Washington, D.C., and the State of Maryland, accuses Mr. Trump of violating constitutional anticorruption clauses intended to limit his receipt of government-bestowed benefits, or emoluments. The local jurisdictions claim that in hopes of currying presidential favor, government officials are patronizing Trump-owned properties instead of hotels or convention centers that the District of Columbia or Maryland own or have some financial interest in.
Although the case could still be thrown out on other grounds, the judge’s ruling adds to the president’s growing legal troubles.
Besides the continuing criminal inquiry into Russia’s influence over the presidential election, an actress in pornographic films, a former Playboy model and a onetime contestant on “The Apprentice” have filed civil lawsuits over their alleged relationships with Mr. Trump before he became president.
The emoluments case raises basic questions that have never been litigated. Even the specific definition of an emolument is unclear. During a January court hearing, Judge Messitte seemed to acknowledge that the case would ultimately be decided by a higher court than his.
Although the president’s critics are hoping that the judge will allow the plaintiffs to scrutinize the Trump Organization’s financial records, perhaps even including the president’s tax returns, it was not clear from Wednesday’s opinion whether the judge would permit such discovery. The next stage of the case is expected to involve arguments about what constitutes an emolument.
Nonetheless, for the plaintiffs, the ruling that they have legal standing to challenge the president’s actions is an important first step in their quest to show that Mr. Trump crossed a constitutional line. “We look forward now to proceeding to address the constitutional issues and demonstrate that the emoluments clauses forbid the things of value that are flowing into the president’s pockets from governments foreign and domestic,” said Norman L. Eisen, the chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who is serving as a co-counsel in the case.