Supreme Court to Weigh Trump’s Immunity Claim in D.C. 2020 Election Trial

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Demonstrators for and against former president Donald Trump protest outside the Supreme Court early this month.

The Supreme Court will review Donald Trump’s unprecedented claim that he is shielded from prosecution for actions taken while in office, further delaying the former president’s federal trial in the nation’s capital on charges of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to remain in power.

The justices set arguments for the week of April 22 to consider a unanimous ruling from a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which early this month rejected Trump’s sweeping assertion of immunity from prosecution.

Trump’s pretrial proceedings in D.C. will remain on hold until a ruling is issued, putting the Supreme Court in the politically fraught position of influencing the timing of an election obstruction trial for the leading Republican presidential candidate. The high court could rule at any time after argument and almost certainly will do so before its term ends in late June or early July, potentially pushing any D.C. trial well into the presidential election season.

Some legal experts had predicted that at least the required four justices would want to weigh in on the unprecedented question of whether presidential acts can be criminally prosecuted – a question Trump has also raised in his separate Florida and Georgia trials. But simply by taking up the matter now, the high court has effectively helped Trump achieve his goal of pushing back at least the D.C. trial, which originally was scheduled to start next week. The former president has repeatedly pressed to postpone all his trials until after the November election, raising the possibility that if he is elected he could try to have the federal cases dismissed.

Wednesday’s announcement means there are now three cases before the Supreme Court that could directly impact Trump’s legal and political future: The justices are also considering whether he can be barred from the ballot because of his conduct around the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and they will hear a challenge in April to the use of an obstruction charge against participants in that riot – the outcome of which could affect the charges Trump faces in D.C. as well.

The brief unsigned order issued in the immunity case Wednesday said the justices were not “expressing a view on the merits” of the case and would consider only the question of “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, who has pleaded not guilty in all his criminal cases, praised the court in a statement for agreeing to review the D.C. appeal, saying that without presidential immunity: “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.”

A spokesman for special counsel Jack Smith, whose office is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.

In the D.C. trial, Trump faces four felony counts in connection with what prosecutors allege was a plan to overturn Biden’s 2020 presidential victory: conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to obstruct the formal certification in Congress of President Biden’s victory, obstructing a congressional proceeding and conspiracy against rights – in this case, the right to vote.

He challenged the indictment, saying former presidents are immune from prosecution, at least for actions related to their official duties, unless first impeached and convicted by Congress. On Feb. 6, the D.C. Circuit delivered a forceful rebuke of that idea.

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a president has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power – the recognition and implementation of election results,” wrote the three judges, two nominated by Biden and the third by President George H.W. Bush.

Trump asked the Supreme Court to put the appeals court ruling on pause and give him time to seek a rehearing by a full complement of D.C. Circuit judges. His lawyers argued that he should not be sidelined from the campaign trail by a months-long criminal trial and said voters have the right to hear from Trump on the stump.

In response, Smith’s office urged the Supreme Court to quickly allow the D.C. trial to proceed and pushed back on Trump’s claim that the rights of American voters require a delay. “To the contrary, the charges here involve applicant’s alleged efforts to disenfranchise tens of millions of voters,” prosecutors wrote.

While the Supreme Court refused Smith’s earlier request in December to skip review by the appeals court and fast-track consideration of Trump’s immunity claim, the high court also rejected on Wednesday Trump’s request for additional time to seek review by the full appeals court. Instead, the justices added the case to their last week of argument during this term.

In assessing whether at least four of the nine justices would agree to take up any case, analysts cited the high stakes and unprecedented legal questions at issue; Trump is the first former U.S. president to be charged with a crime, and many thought the justices would want to have the last word on such a significant issue as whether he is shielded from prosecution.

Trump has also raised immunity issues in his federal case in Florida, where he is charged with illegally retaining classified materials after he left the White House and obstructing government efforts to retrieve them. He argued in a filing last week that most of those charges should be dismissed – noting he was still president when he packed up the classified documents and saying that he designated them at that time as personal materials.

Trump was no longer president when federal officials tried to retrieve the materials, however, and his lawyers did not argue that the obstruction-related charges in Florida should be dismissed on the grounds of presidential immunity.

The Florida trial is scheduled for May 20 but could be pushed back at a hearing scheduled for Friday.

Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who is overseeing the Florida case, must now determine whether she sees enough similarities between the presidential immunity arguments in her case and the D.C. case to hold up her pre-trial proceedings until the Supreme Court makes its decision.

Trump has also brought up the issue of presidential immunity in Georgia, where he faces state charges for allegedly participating in a massive conspiracy to undo the 2020 election results in that state.

The former president is separately facing a state trial in New York, scheduled to start March 25, on charges of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment during the 2016 election.

His request that the Supreme Court hear his D.C. immunity appeal was the second time this year that Trump turned to the nation’s highest court to intervene in an unprecedented legal question that could greatly affect his political future.

At oral argument on Feb. 8, the justices seemed inclined to reverse a ruling from Colorado’s top court that Trump should be barred from the ballot because of his conduct around the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

A ruling in that case could come at any time.