Supreme Court Once Wary of Trump Gives Him Election-Year Boosts

(Bloomberg) -- The US Supreme Court hasn’t always jumped to help former President Donald Trump in his legal travails. But in perhaps the biggest case of Trump’s life, the court he shaped did enough.

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The court once treaded carefully around Trump’s private legal fights. The justices repeatedly rejected Trump and his allies as they sought to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, turned down his bid to keep his tax returns from Congress, and rebuffed him four times in document-related battles with prosecutors and lawmakers once he left office.

The losing streak is over. The court’s 6-3 decision means Trump might never stand trial for trying to overturn the 2020 election results. While the court didn’t grant Trump the “complete and total” immunity from prosecution he sought, it conferred enough of a shield to run the clock past his November election rematch with Biden.

The ruling was the second major Supreme Court victory for Trump this year, following the March 4 decision that said he can appear on presidential ballots, notwithstanding a Colorado court finding that he was an insurrectionist who incited the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

The two decisions mark a new phase in the court’s relationship with a former and potentially future president who put three of its justices on the bench — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The appointments created a 6-3 conservative majority that has overturned Roe v. Wade, pummeled the administrative state and abolished affirmative action in higher education.

Trump’s three nominations in a single term are more than Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton had in two terms apiece.

Trump’s Goal

In the immunity case, the conservatives provided Trump enough of a win to ensure he won’t stand trial this fall while running to reclaim the White House. Should Trump win, he could order the Justice Department to fire Special Counsel Jack Smith and drop the case next year.

“Trump’s fundamental goal was to delay any trial until after the election on the theory that if he wins the election, he can instruct the attorney general to end Jack Smith’s office,” said Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell Law School. “He has effectively gotten that.”

After a federal appeals court ruled 3-0 against Trump, saying his sweeping claims would give him “unbounded authority to commit crimes,” many legal observers questioned whether the nation’s highest court would even get involved.

The Supreme Court instead took up the case and immediately put it on a schedule likely to be favorable to Trump. The justices rejected Smith’s request for a fast track akin to the one in the Colorado ballot case, instead scheduling a hearing for the last argument day of the term and eventually ruling on the last opinion day Monday.

“It is clear that the court was very concerned to avoid a trial before the election,” said Donald Ayer, a retired Supreme Court advocate who served in two Republican administrations. “I am not sure why, but it is possible some of them think a major criminal trial of one candidate would somehow disrupt the people’s electoral decisions. But is that really more important than the voters’ basic interest in knowing what the facts are before they vote?”

The timeline created a contrast with the Colorado case, in which the court rushed to issue a ruling the day before the primary election that was at issue.

Although the Colorado ruling was unanimous, the court’s three liberals complained in strong terms that the majority didn’t need to go as far as it did in limiting use of the Constitution’s insurrection clause. Barrett also said the court went too far, though with less pointed language.

Strong President

The immunity ruling broadly aligns with the current court’s predilection toward a strong president, said Jessica Levinson, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The court under Chief Justice John Roberts seems “much more concerned with protecting the office of the presidency” than trying to “protect Donald Trump,” Levinson said. “Maybe things are different for one or two of the conservative justices, but I think a majority of the conservative wing are making conservative decisions.”

Even so, the ruling’s effect was to give Trump a political boost, shielding him from a trial that might have reminded voters of his role in the Capitol assault. The upshot might be to help Trump recapture the presidency — and potentially appoint more Supreme Court justices in a second term.

“We thank the Supreme Court for recognizing the importance of presidential immunity,” said Jenny Beth Martin, honorary chair of the conservative Tea Party Patriots Action. “The ruling is also a fresh reminder about the importance of the Supreme Court as the American people consider who their next president should be.”

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