Supreme Court Says Trump Is Partly Shielded From Prosecution

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The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that former President Donald J. Trump is entitled to some level of immunity from prosecution, a decision that may effectively delay the trial of the case against him on charges of plotting to subvert the 2020 election.

The vote was 6 to 3, dividing along partisan lines.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said Mr. Trump had immunity for his official acts.

“The president is not above the law,” the chief justice wrote. “But Congress may not criminalize the president’s conduct in carrying out the responsibilities of the executive branch under the Constitution. And the system of separated powers designed by the Framers has always demanded an energetic, independent executive. The president therefore may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled, at a minimum, to a presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts.”

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision was gravely misguided.

“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.”

The justices said there was a crucial distinction between official and private conduct and returned the case to the lower courts for additional analysis.

It was not immediately clear how much delay that would entail, but the prospects for a trial before the election seem increasingly remote. If Mr. Trump prevails at the polls, he could order the Justice Department to drop the charges.

Mr. Trump contended that he is entitled to absolute immunity from the charges, relying on a broad understanding of the separation of powers and a 1982 Supreme Court precedent that recognized such immunity in civil cases for actions taken by presidents within the “outer perimeter” of their official responsibilities.

Lower courts rejected that claim.

“Whatever immunities a sitting president may enjoy,” Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the Federal District Court in Washington wrote, “the United States has only one chief executive at a time, and that position does not confer a lifelong ‘get out of jail free’ pass.”

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed. “For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant,” the panel wrote in an unsigned decision. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution.”

In agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court said it would decide this question: “Whether and if so to what extent does a former president enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.”

The court heard two other cases this term concerning the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In March, the court unanimously rejected an attempt to bar Mr. Trump from the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which made people who engage in insurrection ineligible to hold office. The court, without discussing whether Mr. Trump was covered by the provision, ruled that states may not use it to exclude candidates for the presidency from the ballot.

On Friday, the court ruled that federal prosecutors had improperly used an obstruction law to prosecute some members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Two of the four charges against Mr. Trump are based on that law.

The court decided the case restoring Mr. Trump to the ballot at a brisk pace, hearing arguments a month after agreeing to hear it and issuing its decision a month after that.

The immunity case has moved at a considerably slower pace. In December, in asking the justices to leapfrog the appeals court and hear the case immediately, Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing the prosecution, wrote that “it is of imperative public importance that respond­ent’s claims of immunity be resolved by this court,” adding that “only this court can definitively resolve them.”

The justices denied Mr. Smith’s petition 11 days after he filed it, in a brief order without noted dissents.

After the appeals court ruled against Mr. Trump, he asked the Supreme Court to intervene. Sixteen days later, on Feb. 28, the court agreed to hear his appeal, scheduling arguments for almost two months later, on the last day of the term. Another two months have passed since then.

At the argument, several of the conservative justices did not seem inclined to examine the details of the charges against Mr. Trump. Instead, they said, the court should issue a ruling that applies to presidential power generally.

“We’re writing a rule for the ages,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said.



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