Donald Trump’s January 6th Case May Face Further Delay As Supreme Court Wrestles With Where To Draw The Line On Presidential Immunity

UPDATE: Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism of Donald Trump’s argument that presidents enjoy broad immunity, but they wrestled with which certain official acts could be shielded from prosecution and which would not.

There were some suggestions of sending the case base to lower courts to decide, on an individual basis, which of the charges against Trump could be deemed as private acts and subject to criminal liability. That is a prospect that could lead to further delay in Trump’s election conspiracy case, perhaps until after the 2024 election.

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A number of the justices expressed concerns that their decision in the case would impact future presidents after they leave office and the extent to which they could be subject to criminal prosecution. Justice Samuel Alito hypothesized about political rivals being prosecuted and “a cycle that destabilizes the functioning of our country.”

Justice John Roberts in particular seemed to find troubles with an appellate court decision that rejected Trump’s immunity claims, even as the Justice Department’s attorney, Michael Dreeben, argued that the system had “layered safeguards” to prevent prosecutorial abuse against former presidents.

Prosecutors claim that Trump engaged in a conspiracy to remain in power after the 2020 election. A trial in the case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith has been paused as the immunity question is resolved.

In their questioning during the 2 1/2 hour session, the justicesmade heavy use of hypotheticals, only occasionally pressing the attorneys on the actual charges in Trump’s case. At one point, Barrett went through the alleged claims and asked Trump’s attorney, John Sauer, which ones he considered part of presidential official duties and which were private acts.

Trump’s attorney, John Sauer, acknowledged that some of the allegations against Trump stem from private acts while he was president. But others, like his efforts to solicit a slate of so-called “fake electors,” were official acts, he argued. Dreeben said that ensuring the integrity of a presidential election is not an official duty of the sitting occupant of the Oval Office. It’s one reason that states are in charge of carrying out elections, not the federal government.

Alito, though, seemed to mock the idea that one of those layers of protection is via grand juries, who ultimately hand down indictments. He suggested that most grand juries simply sign off on federal prosecutors’ desires. When Dreeben pointed out that there were instances where a grand jury refused to do so, Alito quipped, “Once in a while there is an eclipse too.”

Even if the court punts on the case, a majority of the justices appeared to buy into the Trump team argument that the president enjoys broad presidential immunity, essentially shielding him from any criminal prosecution after leaving office. Some of the justices also found a contradiction in the claim that a president could only be criminally prosecuted if he or she was impeached and convicted first. Justice Barrett asked how such a prosecution could occur if the president was already immune, as the Trump team has sought.

Justice Clarence Thomas participated in the oral arguments, even though his wife, Ginni Thomas, participated in efforts to challenge the 2020 election results.

Meanwhile, the court’s three liberal justices expressed concerns over a president shielded from accountability for criminal conduct. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said that such a scenario was “at least equal” to the concern of a president being “chilled” by the prospect of criminal prosecution after leaving office.

As he made the case for broad presidential immunity at the outset, Sauer posed the question to the justices of whether George W. Bush could be prosecuted for the Iraq war, or Barack Obama for ordering drone strikes on terrorist targets or Joe Biden for “unlawfully inducing immigrants to enter the country illegally through his border policy.” The latter line is also a major Trump campaign theme.

But some of the justices saw the argument a different way. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Sauer at one point, “If the president decides that his rival is a corrupt person and he orders the military or orders someone to assassinate him, is that within his official acts for which he can get immunity?”

“It would depend on the hypothetical. We can see that could well be an official act,” Sauer said.

PREVIOUSLY: As Donald Trump returns to a New York courtroom for another day of his hush money trial, another team of his lawyers will be arguing before the Supreme Court in a case that is of utmost consequence to his fate.

The justices will consider whether his conduct as president gives him broad immunity from prosecution.

The high court’s decision won’t impact the current proceedings playing out in Manhattan, but they will likely decide whether Trump’s January 6th case —- in which he is charged with conspiring to remain in power —- moves forward.

The justices’ opinion also may ultimately set the ground rules for any future president, as they are weighing questions that have never quite come before the court this directly.

Many legal scholars predict that the justices will decide that Trump does not have immunity, but almost as important is how quickly the Supreme Court rules. That will impact when a federal trial in the January 6th case can start, with figures like Liz Cheney urging the justices to act quickly so as to ensure that proceedings can happen before the election.

“No President who tries to steal an election and seize power is entitled to immunity for those acts,” Cheney wrote on X/Twitter this week. “The American people deserve to hear all of the J6 evidence presented in open court. SCOTUS should conclude without delay that no immunity applies here.”

Steven D. Schwinn of the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law wrote that there were a myriad of factors that could delay the case even after the court rules, a decision that may not come until late June. “All this may push any trial back after the 2024 presidential election and, if Trump were elected, the transition. And that could allow a second-term President Trump to quash the case.”

The justices also could make a decision that is less monumental, like rendering an opinion on Trump’s charges specifically and leaving it up to lower courts to decide future questions of immunity on a case by case basis.

Arguing for Trump will be John Sauer, the former solicitor general of Missouri. Before an appellate hearing in January, His main argument was that a president could not be prosecuted for actions in office unless he first was impeached and was convicted in the Senate. The appellate judges weren’t buying in —- one noted that it meant a president could order Seal Team 6 to kill a political opponent and not face prosecution.

The appellate court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Trump did not have immunity. “For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against this prosecution,” they wrote.

The judge in Trump’s New York case, Juan Merchan, made it clear that the former president could not attend the Supreme Court oral arguments and had to be present at his New York trial.

Michael Dreeben, counselor to the special counsel for the Justice Department, will be arguing for the federal prosecutors. Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case against Trumpo on election conspiracy charges has been paused as the immunity question is resolved.

In New York, Trump told reporters this morning, “A president has to have immunity. If you don’t have immunity, you just have a ceremonial president.”

Outside the court this morning, there were only a few demonstrators, including one who had a large mock Trump campaign poster that read “LOSER.”

Viewers will be able to listen to the arguments on C-SPAN and in live audio feeds on cable news networks, unlike the Trump his money trial, which restricts sights and sounds from being transmitted from the courtroom.

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