Supreme Court delivers big win for Trump on immunity: 5 takeaways

The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a win for former President Trump in largely shielding former presidents from criminal prosecution for actions they take while in office.

The 6-3 decision along ideological lines determined presidents have absolute immunity for actions that fall within the core responsibilities of their office and are presumptively immune for all other official acts.

The decision dooms various portions of special counsel Jack Smith’s case against Trump going forward, with the court writing that some of the ways the former president leveraged his power could be considered an exercise of the office.

The dissenting liberal justices blasted the decision as one that “effectively creates a law-free zone around the President.”

Justices grant broad immunity

The majority’s decision provides a broad shield to former presidents for their conduct while in the White House.

It sorts conduct into three buckets: core constitutional powers, official acts and unofficial acts.

For the first bucket, the court definitively ruled that former presidents are immune.

“At least with respect to the President’s exercise of his core constitutional powers, this immunity must be absolute,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

All other official acts are “at least presumptively” immune, putting the burden on the government and possibly protecting them entirely.

“At the current stage of proceedings in this case, however, we need not and do not decide whether that immunity must be absolute, or instead whether a presumptive immunity is sufficient,” Roberts wrote.

As for unofficial acts, the parties never disputed those could be prosecuted.

Decision takes a sledgehammer to Trump’s indictment

Monday’s decision undercut much of Smith’s case against Trump, with Roberts writing that some of Trump’s efforts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election would be considered a byproduct of his official responsibilities.

The opinion condoned Trump’s outreach to the Department of Justice at a time when his allies were asking prosecutors to halt certification of election results to allow for investigation into what were baseless claims of election fraud.

“Trump is absolutely immune from prosecution for the alleged conduct involving his discussions with Justice Department officials,” the court wrote, adding that the executive branch has “‘absolute discretion’ to decide which crimes to investigate and prosecute.”

Even Trump’s pressure campaign on former Vice President Mike Pence “involve official conduct,” the court wrote, adding that Trump is presumptively immune on the matter.

The court also went a step further, writing that “courts may not inquire into the President’s motives.”

That concept was roundly rejected in a dissent by the court’s liberals.

“It is one thing to say that motive is irrelevant to questions regarding the scope of civil liability, but it is quite another to make it irrelevant to questions regarding criminal liability,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

“Under that rule, any use of official power for any purpose, even the most corrupt purpose indicated by objective evidence of the most corrupt motives and intent, remains official and immune.”

Dissent accuses majority of ‘reshaping’ the presidency

Sotomayor’s dissent contains a series of scathing shots at the majority while warning of the potential fallout from the decision.

Sotomayor argued the court was too broad in granting immunity for officials acts — one she said greenlights the abuse of presidential power.

“When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune,” she wrote, nodding to a series of hypotheticals raised during April arguments.

In one line, Sotomayor accused the majority of inventing “immunity through brute force,” while in another, she writes they have shielded presidents from facing justice for “criminal and treasonous acts.”

She also wrote that the decision “makes a mockery” of the principle of equal justice under law.

“This new official-acts immunity now ‘lies about like a loaded weapon’ for any President that wishes to place his own interests, his own political survival, or his own financial gain, above the interests of the Nation,” her dissent read.

“The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

Remand will kick case beyond the election

While Monday’s decision seems to doom numerous elements of Smith’s case against Trump, it still kicks the issue back to the district court for analysis — a process all but certain to punt any potential trial until after the election.

Trump is facing charges on four counts in the case. Judge Tanya Chutkan will parse which elements the former president may now have immunity for, including those related to his pressure on the Justice Department.

It possibly sets the stage for major hearings in Chutkan’s court in the lead-up to November’s election, even if Trump’s actual trial is delayed, as both sides battle over how to apply the Supreme Court’s test.

There was debate, even among the court’s majority, about how far the bounds of immunity stretch.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s final appointee, in a separate, solo opinion signaled she didn’t see a problem with prosecuting Trump over his pressure campaigns on state legislators in key swing states Trump lost in 2020.

“The President has no authority over state legislatures or their leadership, so it is hard to see how prosecuting him for crimes committed when dealing with the Arizona House Speaker would unconstitutionally intrude on executive power,” she wrote.

But weighing the issue will also eat up time in the already-paused cause, where Chutkan is still considering other efforts by Trump to toss the case, including arguments that the indictment doesn’t actually show any violation of criminal laws.

And Trump could well decide to appeal any ruling from Chutkan, kicking off more review by an appeals court before potentially coming before the Supreme Court yet again.

Ruling falls along ideological lines

Chief Justice John Roberts has long sought to portray the Supreme Court as apolitical, famously analogizing judges to umpires who merely call “balls and strikes.”

But on Monday, the court voted along its familiar 6-3 ideological lines, with the conservatives in the majority. That lineup occurred for only 11 of the court’s 59 opinions this term.

The liberal dissenters accused their colleagues of “judicial activism” by “reaching out to shield some conduct as official while refusing to recognize any conduct as unofficial.”

“Our dissenting colleagues exude an impressive infallibility,” Roberts responded in the majority opinion. “While their confidence may be inspiring, the Court adheres to time-tested practices instead.”

The court has long been uncomfortable getting involved in Trump’s hot-button legal entanglements. For the cases that did reach the high court, justices in both ideological camps have at times ruled against the former president.

Most recently, all nine justices in March declined to boot Trump from the ballot under the 14th Amendment’s insurrection ban, with the court’s decision not denoting any singular author. A divide only appeared beneath the surface, where the justices split 5-4 on how far to go.

The immunity case in particular put to the test the court’s desire to be perceived as apolitical. Democrats called for conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse themselves, demanding meetings that drew a rare response from the chief justice.

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