Supreme Court rules Trump has immunity for official acts in landmark case

Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that former President Donald Trump is entitled to immunity from federal prosecution for official actions he took while in office, a landmark decision at the height of an election season that could further delay the start of his criminal trial in Washington, D.C.

The 6-3 decision along ideological lines tosses out a ruling from the federal appeals court in Washington that concluded Trump is not entitled to broad immunity from criminal charges stemming from an alleged scheme to hold on to power after the 2020 election. The justices sent the dispute back to the district court for further proceedings, and gave the court guidance about how to move forward.

The ruling expands presidential power by extending immunity from criminal prosecutions to former presidents for their official conduct. Never before had the Supreme Court considered whether a former commander in chief could face criminal charges as a result of conduct that occurred while in the Oval Office. 

Trump is the first to have held the presidency and faced prosecution. He has pleaded not guilty to four charges stemming from an alleged effort to subvert the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election.

The former president cheered the decision, calling it a “big win for our Constitution and democracy” in a social media post. The special counsel declined to comment. 

Trump v. United States

The Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 1, 2024.
The Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 1, 2024.

Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While concluding that former presidents have sweeping legal protections from charges for alleged acts that fell within their official duties, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s claims that he is entitled to sweeping, absolute immunity unless impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. Such a decision would have brought the federal prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith to an end. 

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the majority. He divided presidential conduct into three categories: official acts that are part of presidents’ “core constitutional powers”; other official acts that are outside their “exclusive authority”; and unofficial acts. Presidents have “absolute” immunity for the first category, “presumptive” immunity for the second and no immunity for the third.

“The president enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the president does is official. The president is not above the law,” Roberts wrote. “But Congress may not criminalize the president’s conduct in carrying out the responsibilities of the Executive Branch under the Constitution.”

The ruling makes it highly unlikely that a trial will happen before the November presidential election, since the district court is now instructed to examine some of the allegations contained in the indictment to determine whether they fall within the scope of immunity.

In the indictment, Smith accused the former president of conspiring with Justice Department officials to pressure states into overturning election results. The chief justice wrote that Trump is “absolutely immune from prosecution for the alleged conduct involving his discussions with Justice Department officials” since “the President cannot be prosecuted for conduct within his exclusive constitutional authority.”

“The indictment’s allegations that the requested investigations were ‘sham[s]’ or proposed for an improper purpose do not divest the president of exclusive authority over the investigative and prosecutorial functions of the Justice Department and its officials,” Roberts wrote for the court.

As to Smith’s allegations that Trump pushed then-Vice President Mike Pence to delay Congress’ certification of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, the court said it is the government’s burden to rebut the presumption that Trump has immunity.

Regarding the rest of the conduct alleged in the charges against Trump — namely that he worked to organize false slates of electors, communicated with outside attorneys to execute that plan and urged his supporters to descend on Washington on Jan. 6 — the court ruled any protections from prosecution “may depend on the content of context” of the allegations. 

The Supreme Court instructed the district court judge overseeing the case to “carefully analyze the indictment’s remaining allegations to determine whether they too involve conduct for which a president must be immune from prosecution. And the parties and the District Court must ensure that sufficient allegations support the indictment’s charges without such conduct.”

The court’s conservative majority also said that testimony or private records of the president or his advisers examining such conduct cannot be admitted as evidence at trial.

The minority’s dissent

Joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the decision “reshapes the institution of the presidency” by insulating presidents from criminal liability and accused the conservative majority of inventing an “atextual, ahistorical, and unjustifiable immunity that puts the president above the law.”

“It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of government, that no man is above the law,” the three liberal justices said.

Sotomayor said the conservative majority failed to place a concrete limit on its decision, even though it acknowledged that a former president can be prosecuted for private conduct. The line the majority drew for dividing official and unofficial conduct, she claimed, narrows the acts that can be deemed unofficial.

“The majority today endorses an expansive vision of presidential immunity that was never recognized by the Founders, any sitting president, the Executive Branch, or even President Trump’s lawyers, until now,” Sotomayor wrote. “Settled understandings of the Constitution are of little use to the majority in this case, and so it ignores them.”

She also rebuffed concerns that the threat of criminal liability would chill the actions of future presidents and pointed in part to “safeguards” required for a federal criminal prosecution.

“The majority seems to think that allowing former presidents to escape accountability for breaking the law while disabling the current executive from prosecuting such violations somehow respects the independence of the executive,” Sotomayor wrote. “It does not. Rather, it diminishes that independence, exalting occupants of the office over the office itself.”

Sotomayor called the decision “deeply wrong,” and warned that it will have long-term consequences.

“The court effectively creates a law-free zone around the president, upsetting the status quo that has existed since the founding,” she said.

Sotomayor cited several examples raised in lower court proceedings to determine the contours of presidential immunity, and said that under the Supreme Court’s ruling, a president would be shielded from prosecution for ordering Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival, organizing a military coup to retain power or taking a bribe in exchange for a pardon.

“In every use of official power, the president is now a king above the law,” she said.

Sotomayor ended her opinion stating, “with fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

Trump’s immunity claim

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has sought to delay proceedings in the case related to the 2020 election, as well as two other prosecutions, until after the upcoming presidential contest. If Trump defeats President Biden in November, he could order the Justice Department to seek to drop the federal charges against him or issue a pardon for himself, though the constitutionality of that maneuver has not been tested.

In addition to the charges in Washington, Trump was indicted in South Florida for allegedly mishandling sensitive government documents after leaving the White House. He has pleaded not guilty to the 40 federal counts he faces there. Trump is also being prosecuted in Fulton County, Georgia, for allegedly attempting to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election and has pleaded not guilty to all state charges there.

The dispute over presidential immunity thrust the justices into a politically charged legal fight just months before the election. The former president has claimed he is being unfairly targeted in an effort to protect Mr. Biden, though there is no evidence the prosecution — brought by a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland — is politically motivated.

It also was the second instance this term in which the Supreme Court decided a case with significant political or legal ramifications for Trump. In March, the high court unanimously ruled states cannot bar Trump from the ballot using an obscure provision of the 14th Amendment that prohibited former insurrectionists from holding public office.

Trump appointed three of the nine justices of the court, widening its conservative majority to 6-3. He had urged the Supreme Court to effectively rule that former presidents are insulated from accountability through the legal system. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Trump’s appeal in late April and they were the last of its term. Arguments also took place alongside the historic, six-week criminal trial involving Trump that was held in New York, where a jury of 12 convicted him on 34 state felony counts of falsifying business records.

The landmark verdict made Trump the first former president found guilty of a crime. He has vowed to appeal, a process that could take months or even years to play out. Trump is set to be sentenced in Manhattan on July 11.

The proceedings involving Trump in his criminal cases have been unprecedented and, in the case related to the 2020 election, raised an issue that the Supreme Court had never confronted before. During oral arguments, the conservative justices seemed acutely aware that their ruling would apply to all future presidencies and were concerned of the possible ramifications for those who occupy the Oval Office in the years to come.

Trump’s lawyers had urged the justices to reverse the lower court rulings that allowed his prosecution to proceed, including one from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that was unanimous. They argued that the unprecedented nature of the charges against Trump was evidence that presidents are broadly immune from criminal prosecution for official acts.

But Smith and his team of prosecutors had argued that no person is above the law, including former presidents. They said that Trump’s alleged conduct was outside his official duties as president and part of a private scheme to remain in power. 

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