CBS News - July 2, 2024 6:09 am


The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that former President Donald Trump is entitled to immunity from federal prosecution for official actions he took while in office, a landmark decision at the height of an election season that could further delay the start of his criminal trial in Washington, D.C.

The 6-3 decision tossed out a ruling from the federal appeals court in Washington that concluded Trump is not entitled to broad immunity from criminal charges stemming from an alleged scheme to hold on to power after the 2020 election.

The ruling from the nation’s highest court is an expansion of presidential power since it extends immunity to criminal prosecutions of former presidents for their official conduct. Never before had the Supreme Court considered whether a former commander-in-chief could face criminal charges due to conduct that occurred while in the Oval Office.

Trump is the first to have held the presidency and faced prosecution. He has pleaded not guilty to four charges stemming from an alleged effort to subvert the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

“We conclude that under our constitutional structure of separated powers, the nature of Presidential power requires that a former President have some immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts during his tenure in office. At least with respect to the President’s exercise of his core constitutional powers, this immunity must be absolute,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “As for his remaining official actions, he is also entitled to immunity. 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.”

While concluding that former presidents have sweeping legal protections from charges for alleged acts that fell within their official duties, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s claims that he is entitled to sweeping, absolute immunity from prosecution that encompasses unofficial acts. Such a decision would’ve brought the federal prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith to an end.

The ruling makes it highly unlikely that a trial will happen before the November presidential election.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has sought to delay proceedings in the case related to the 2020 election, as well as two other prosecutions, until after the upcoming presidential contest. If Trump defeats President Biden in November, he could order the Justice Department to seek to drop the federal charges against him or issue a pardon for himself, though the constitutionality of that maneuver has not been tested.

In addition to the charges in Washington, Trump was indicted in South Florida for allegedly mishandling sensitive government documents after leaving the White House. He has pleaded not guilty to the 40 federal counts he faces there. Trump is also being prosecuted in Fulton County, Georgia, for allegedly attempting to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election and has pleaded not guilty to all state charges there.

The dispute over presidential immunity thrust the justices into a politically charged legal fight just months before the election. The former president has claimed he is being unfairly targeted in an effort to protect Mr. Biden, though there is no evidence the prosecution — brought by a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland — is politically motivated.

It also was the second instance this term in which the Supreme Court decided a case with significant political or legal ramifications for Trump. In March, the high court unanimously ruled states cannot bar Trump from the ballot using an obscure provision of the 14th Amendment that prohibited former insurrectionists from holding public office.

Trump appointed three of the nine justices of the court, widening its conservative majority to 6-3. He had urged the Supreme Court to effectively rule that former presidents are insulated from accountability through the legal system.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Trump’s appeal in late April and they were the last of its term. Arguments also took place alongside the historic, six-week criminal trial involving Trump that was held in New York, where a jury of 12 convicted him on 34 state felony counts of falsifying business records.

The landmark verdict made Trump the first former president found guilty of a crime. He has vowed to appeal, a process that could take months or even years to play out. Trump is set to be sentenced in Manhattan on July 11.

The proceedings involving Trump in his criminal cases have been unprecedented and, in the case related to the 2020 election, raised an issue that the Supreme Court had never confronted before. During oral arguments, the conservative justices seemed acutely aware that their ruling would apply to all future presidencies and were concerned of the possible ramifications for those who occupy the Oval Office in the years to come.

Trump’s lawyers had urged the justices to reverse the lower court rulings that allowed his prosecution to proceed, including one from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that was unanimous. They argued that the unprecedented nature of the charges against Trump was evidence that presidents are broadly immune from criminal prosecution for official acts.

But Smith and his team of prosecutors had argued that no person is above the law, including former presidents. They said that Trump’s alleged conduct was outside his official duties as president and part of a private scheme to remain in power.

Supreme Court now sends Trump’s immunity case back to the lower court in Washington, which would likely delay a pre-election trial.


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