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Supreme Court sends Trump case back to lower court, giving former president limited immunity

The order applies not just to actions taken by Trump, but to any past, current or future president.
Election 2024 Trump
Posted at 8:36 AM, Jul 01, 2024

In the biggest test of the presidency's power since President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a president cannot be prosecuted for official actions taken while in office.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court returned lower court rulings and stated that a former president has absolute immunity for his core constitutional powers.

Writing the opinion on behalf of the six conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts said former President Trump is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts, but there is no immunity for unofficial acts. The court sent the case back to a lower court to determine which of Trump's actions regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection, if any, were official duties and therefore subject to immunity.

Lawyers for Trump argued that allegations he had illegally attempted to prevent Joe Biden from taking office in 2021 were acts taken as president and are subject to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution. His attorneys added that this argument would not apply to a president who was impeached and convicted for those acts. Trump was impeached by the House in 2021, but he was acquitted by the Senate.

Michael Dreeben, an attorney representing special counsel Jack Smith’s office, argued against that conclusion, noting that prosecution for bribery, treason, murder and — in Trump’s case — attempting to overturn the results of the election through fraud was in direct conflict with the country’s founding principles.

The ruling applies not just to actions taken by Trump, but to any past, current or future president.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among the three justices who ruled against Trump on Monday.

"Today’s decision to grant former Presidents criminal immunity reshapes the institution of the Presidency," she wrote. "It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law. Relying on little more than its own misguided wisdom about the need for 'bold and unhesitating action' by the President, the Court gives former President Trump all the immunity he asked for and more. Because our Constitution does not shield a former President from answering for criminal and treasonous acts, I dissent."

Legal history

Presidents have largely been given immunity while in office, as the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel ruled during the 1973 Watergate scandal that a sitting president should not be subject to prosecution. This claim was repeated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in testimony to Congress.

Mueller, who investigated alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and any associated ties to the Trump campaign, stated in his 2019 testimony that a sitting president could not be charged with a crime due to the long-standing Office of Legal Counsel guidance.

But when asked by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., if a former president could be indicted, Mueller simply responded, “Yes.”

The highest-ranking government official to ever face criminal charges was Vice President Aaron Burr for the killing of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Although charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey, Burr was never convicted.

The U.S. Constitution gives some guidance in Article 1, Section 3, Clause 7, which addresses the impeachment of federal officers.

"Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law," the Constitution says.

Numerous rulings, including Mississippi v. Johnson and Nixon v. Fitzgerald, have stipulated a president is immune from being liable for official acts while president.

Case against Trump

Trump was originally scheduled to go before District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan on March 4, but he had the date pushed back as courts considered Trump's immunity claim. After Chutkan denied a motion to dismiss, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Chutkan's decision.

Trump then appealed to the Supreme Court and expedited hearing the case.

What Monday's ruling means

Trump is in the midst of four criminal cases. He's facing sentencing later this month after being convicted in New York on 34 criminal counts.

He is also waiting for trials in three separate cases, including the aforementioned case concerning his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. He also faces criminal federal charges for possessing classified documents after leaving office and a state of Georgia case involving efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

At the very least, his case concerning his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection will be delayed until a judge can decide whether Trump's actions were part of his official duties as president. The judge presiding over his classified documents case has also said that she would await the Supreme Court's ruling before moving forward with a trial.

The result means that those two federal cases are likely going to be delayed past the November election. It is also possible Monday's decision could affect when the case in Georgia can take place.

Reaction to Monday's case


The Biden campaign issued its reaction in a statement.

"Since January 6, Trump has only grown more unhinged. He’s promising to be a dictator ‘on day one,’ calling for our Constitution to be ‘terminated’ so he can regain power, and promising a “bloodbath” if he loses. The American people already rejected Donald Trump’s self-obsessed quest for power once – Joe Biden will make sure they reject it for good in November," the campaign said.