U.S. Supreme Court grants Trump partial win in immunity question

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 127 views 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday (July 1) ruled that former President Donald Trump does not have total immunity, but would have the “presumption” of immunity for any official acts while in office. The ruling is seen as a victory for Trump.

Early legal analysis suggests the Court’s ruling will make it more difficult for Special Prosecutor Jack Smith to pursue the Jan. 6 insurrection case against Trump because it potentially limits evidence that can be used by the prosecution. The justices were split 6-3 on the opinion and along partisan lines. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion. (Link here for a PDF of the opinion.)

As part of his challenge to allegations he illegally tried to interfere with the 2020 election process, Trump and his attorneys claim that as a former president he is immune to criminal prosecution. Federal law now provides immunity to a president while in office with the immunity related to a president’s official actions.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan had ruled that a former president does not have the “divine right of kings” to avoid prosecution for overt illegal actions while in office and after leaving office. Her ruling was unanimously supported by a three-judge panel with the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution,” the judges noted in their opinion.

The Supreme Court justices heard the arguments in April. Based on questions and responses from the justices, it was expected that the conservative court would give Trump a partial victory but leave him without immunity for “private conduct.” That expectation proved true.

“This case poses a question of lasting significance: When may a former President be prosecuted for official acts taken during his Presidency? In answering that question, unlike the political branches and the public at large, the Court cannot afford to fixate exclusively, or even primarily, on present exigencies. Enduring separation of powers principles guide our decision in this case,” the Court noted in the majority opinion. “The President enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law. But under our system of separated powers, the President may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts. That immunity applies equally to all occupants of the Oval Office.”

Roberts also noted: “As for a President’s unofficial acts, there is no immunity.”

The Court rejected Trump’s argument that prosecution of a president must include impeachment.

“Transforming the political process of impeachment into a necessary step in the enforcement of criminal law finds little support in the text of the Constitution or the structure of the Nation’s Government,” Roberts noted.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion mocks the idea that no person is above the law.

“Today’s decision to grant former Presidents criminal immunity reshapes the institution of the Presidency. It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law,” Sotomayor wrote.

She noted in the conclusion of her dissent: “Never in the history of our Republic has a President had reason to believe that he would be immune from criminal prosecution if he used the trappings of his office to violate the criminal law. Moving forward, however, all former Presidents will be cloaked in such immunity. If the occupant of that office misuses official power for personal gain, the criminal law that the rest of us must abide will not provide a backstop. With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

The Court remanded to the District Court several questions, including Trump’s attempts to influence the vice president, and if certain of his actions were official or unofficial.

“The SCOTUS decision today confirms that a President is immune from criminal prosecution for official acts within his ‘conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority.’ This ruling should prove to any Justice Department official, Democrat or Republican, that politically motivated prosecutions cannot be directed at the President,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro. “Clearly, some of the indictments in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case against President Trump are likely unconstitutional. Instead of rushing to a conclusion that is not based on our Constitution and established caselaw, the District Court should reflect on this ruling and determine the best course forward for our nation and not a pre-desired political outcome.”