Courts

The Impact of the Supreme Court’s Presidential Immunity Ruling  

On July 1st, the Supreme Court released its last round of decisions before their summer recess. One of these decisions, Trump vs. the United States (2024), changed the future of the executive office, and possibly our democracy. 

After the January 6th insurrection in 2021, Special Council Jack Smith was assigned to investigate Trump’s involvement in the riots. In August 2023, Trump was indicted by a grand jury on four charges related to the insurrection, which Trump’s legal team argued that he was immune from. Trump claimed that he could not be prosecuted for official acts conducted as a part of the presidential office unless he had first been impeached. While Trump’s trial was initially set for March of 2024, the proceedings were put on hold until Trump’s immunity claim could be ruled on. 

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan and DC Circuit Judges denied Trump’s immunity claims. The Supreme Court expedited the case and ruled in a 6-3 decision on Monday that all former, current, and future presidents have some presidential immunity from criminal acts as long as they were committed as a part of the president’s official acts and duties. 

What exactly constitutes “official” versus “unofficial” duties has been left up to Judge Chutkan; however, in a lower court, one judge asked if Trump could be prosecuted if he ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival. Trump’s lawyers said that under their interpretation of presidential immunity, which the Supreme Court affirmed, Trump could not be prosecuted unless he had been impeached and convicted for the act first. On the other hand, an unofficial act could range from something like a speeding ticket or if a president assassinated someone. 

A few days before SCOTUS’s presidential immunity ruling, they also released a decision on another January 6th case involving Trump. After the insurrection, multiple protesters were criminally charged for their involvement, including obstructing an official proceeding. The defendants in the criminal case argued that this statute did not apply to their actions on January 6th. The Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the obstruction charge to actions like evidence tampering. While Trump viewed this decision as a significant win, it is unlikely that it will have much of an effect on Trump’s trial on January 6th since he had a drastically different type of involvement than his supporters. 

While Trump’s most important Supreme Court case has been closed, he still has four separate legal proceedings nationwide for various criminal acts. In his January 6th election interference case, Judge Chutkan must rule whether Trump’s actions were official or unofficial presidential acts. The Supreme Court justices made this more difficult for Judge Chutkan by limiting her ability to inquire about Trump’s motives. 

Regardless of the outcomes of Trump’s four pending criminal trials, the Supreme Court’s decision on presidential immunity has fundamentally changed the president’s office and given unprecedented power to those in the position. The feelings of many Americans can best be represented in Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in this case: “With fear for our democracy, I dissent.” 

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