Supreme Court Rules Trump Has Some Immunity in Federal Election Case
Supreme Court Rules Trump Has Some Immunity in Federal Election Case

By Sam Dorman

The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that presidents enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution for official, but not unofficial, acts—in a decision that’s expected to delay former President Donald Trump’s trial in the federal election case in Washington.

The Supreme Court held that: “Under our constitutional structure of separated powers, the nature of Presidential power entitles a former President to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority. And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts. There is no immunity for unofficial acts.”

The July 1 decision remands the case to the district court for further consideration.

Chief Justice John Roberts penned the majority opinion, which was joined in full by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined part of the opinion while issuing a concurrence of her own.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a dissent, which was joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan. Justice Jackson also issued a dissent.

Former President Trump responded to the decision on TruthSocial: “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”

The ruling is a partial win for former President Trump, who asked for a broader form of immunity than the justices ultimately granted. Former President Trump had asked the court to rule that he enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution for his official acts unless Congress had impeached and convicted him for those acts.

D.C. District Judge Tanya Chutkan had rejected the idea that presidents enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

During oral argument in April, the conservative justices seemed poised to remand the case back to the district court in Washington with instructions on what constitutes official and private acts for further fact-finding proceedings.

“We’re writing a rule for the ages,” Justice Neil Gorsuch said during oral argument. He and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson both made clear they were concerned about cases beyond former President Trump’s, which has forced the court to grapple with what constitutes a president’s official conduct.

Attorney D. John Sauer argued for former President Trump, and former Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben argued for special counsel Jack Smith.

The most recent time the Supreme Court issued a major ruling on presidential immunity was in 1982, in Nixon v. Fitzgerald. The court ruled that presidents enjoyed absolute immunity from civil liability for actions that fell within the outer perimeter of their official duties.

What’s Next

The Supreme Court remanded the case or sent it back to the D.C. district court for further consideration.

More specifically, the justices directed the district court “to assess in the first instance whether a prosecution involving Trump’s alleged attempts to influence the Vice President’s oversight of the certification proceeding would pose any dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.”

Another aspect of the decision directed the district court to weigh whether various aspects of Mr. Smith’s indictment constituted official or unofficial acts. That included allegations that former President Trump’s attempted to sway state officials, use fraudulent slates of electors, and his communications on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Court’s syllabus, or overview of the ruling, noted: The President possesses ‘extraordinary power to speak to his fellow citizens and on their behalf,’” quoting another opinion in Trump v. Hawaii.

“So most of a President’s public communications are likely to fall comfortably within the outer perimeter of his official responsibilities,” it added.

It’s unclear how much of Mr. Smith’s indictment will remain after lower court proceedings.

“On remand, the District Court must carefully analyze the indictment’s remaining allegations to determine whether they too involve conduct for which a President must be immune from prosecution,” the Supreme Court said.

“And the parties and the District Court must ensure that sufficient allegations support the indictment’s charges without such conduct. Testimony or private records of the President or his advisers probing such conduct may not be admitted as evidence at trial.”

The decision came just days after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fischer v. United States, which vacated the D.C. Circuit’s interpretation of a statute — 18 U.S. Code Section 1512(c) — the Justice Department used to pursue Jan. 6 defendants and President Trump. In a footnote, Justice Roberts said that “if necessary, the District Court should determine in the first instance whether the Section 1512(c)(2) charges may proceed in light of our decision in Fischer.

Dissents

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent argued the majority “makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law.”

She went on to describe Mr. Smith’s indictment as painting “a stark portrait of a President desperate to stay in power.”

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.


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