US Supreme Court to decide Trump criminal immunity claim in 2020 election case

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, giving him a boost as he tries to delay criminal prosecutions while running to regain the presidency.

The justices put on hold the criminal case being pursued by Special Counsel Jack Smith and will review a lower court’s rejection of Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution because he was president when he took actions aimed at reversing President Joe Biden’s election victory over him.

The Supreme Court set the case for oral argument during the week of April 22 on a single 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.”

Trump, the first former president to be criminally prosecuted, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Biden, a Democrat, in the Nov. 5 US election.

The case once again thrusts the nation’s top judicial body, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three justices appointed by Trump, into the election fray. The Supreme Court also is due to issue a ruling on whether to overturn a judicial decision that barred Trump from Colorado’s Republican primary ballot based on a constitutional provision regarding insurrection.

Attorney General Merrick Garland is flanked by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Kenneth Polite as he announces his appointment of Jack Smith as a special counsel for the investigations of former President Donald Trump, November 2022 (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Feb. 6 ruled 3-0 against Trump’s immunity claim, rejecting his bid for “unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power – the recognition and implementation of election results.”

Smith was appointed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland in November 2022. In August 2023, Smith brought four federal criminal counts against Trump in the election subversion case. A March 4 trial date was postponed as Trump pressed his immunity claim, with no new date yet set.

Trump has three other pending criminal cases, with a trial in New York state court concerning hush money paid to a porn star set to begin on March 25. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all of them, seeking to portray them as politically motivated.

Trump, in a post on his social media platform, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear his immunity claim.

“Without Presidential Immunity, a President will not be able to properly function, or make decisions, in the best interest of the United States of America,” Trump wrote. “Presidents will always be concerned, and even paralyzed, by the prospect of wrongful prosecution and retaliation after they leave office. This could actually lead to the extortion and blackmail of a President.”

Representatives for the special counsel’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Smith’s charges accused Trump of conspiring to defraud the United States, obstructing the congressional certification of Biden’s electoral victory and conspiring to do so, and conspiring against right of Americans to vote.

Trump and his allies made false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and devised a plan to use false electors to thwart congressional certification of Biden’s victory. Trump also sought to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence not to allow certification to go forward. Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol in a bid to prevent the certification.

If Trump regains the presidency, he could seek to use his powers to force an end to the prosecution or potentially pardon himself for any federal crimes.

Above the law

Trump last October sought to have the charges dismissed based on his claim of immunity. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected that claim in December.

During January arguments in his appeal, one of Trump’s lawyers told the D.C. Circuit judges that even if a president sold pardons or military secrets or ordered a Navy commando unit to assassinate a political rival, he could not be criminally charged unless he is first impeached and convicted in Congress.

In its decision rejecting Trump’s immunity claim, the three-judge panel wrote: “We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”

Supreme Court justices during arguments on Feb. 8 signaled skepticism toward a ruling by Colorado’s top court that barred Trump from the state’s Republican primary ballot, based on the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, after finding he engaged in an insurrection related to the Capitol attack.

The Colorado and immunity cases put the Supreme Court in the election spotlight in the most direct way since its 2000 ruling that effectively handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

In a separate case to be argued on April 16, the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a man involved in the Capitol attack can be charged with obstructing an official proceeding – the congressional certification of the 2020 election results. That case has potential implications for Trump because Smith brought two obstruction-related charges.





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