Supreme Court rules Trump has limited immunity in January 6 case, jeopardizing trial before election

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Donald Trump may claim immunity from criminal prosecution for some of the actions he took in the waning days of his presidency in a decision that will likely further delay a trial on the federal election subversion charges pending against him.

In the most closely watched case before the Supreme Court this year, the ruling rejects a decision from a federal appeals court in February that found Trump enjoyed no immunity for alleged crimes he committed during his presidency to reverse the 2020 election results.

The Supreme Court’s decision was 6-3, with the court’s liberals in dissent. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a lengthy and strongly worded dissent in which she excoriated the court for its decision.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Monday’s opinion, “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.”

“The President enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law,” Roberts also wrote.

The chief justice said the trial court will have to assess what of Trump’s alleged conduct is immunized under the new test handed down by the high court, and the opinion said that additional briefing will be needed for the trial court to do so.

“We accordingly remand to the District Court to determine in the first instance — with the benefit of briefing we lack — whether Trump’s conduct in this area qualifies as official or unofficial,” wrote Roberts, who said there was a lack of “factual analysis” in the previous lower court opinions rejecting Trump’s immunity.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett expressed frustration with how the court was sending the case back down for more proceedings.

“I would have framed the underlying legal issues differently,” Barrett wrote in a concurrence. She suggested that because Trump’s wholesale challenge to the indictment had failed, at least some of the case could go forward.

“A President facing prosecution may challenge the constitutionality of a criminal statute as applied to official acts alleged in the indictment,” Barrett wrote.

“If that challenge fails, however, he must stand trial,” she said.

She took issue with how the court had ruled that evidence from Trump’s official acts should be excluded from the trial, writing that there was no reason to depart from the “familiar and time-tested procedure” that would allow for such evidence to be included.

The decision was quickly welcomed by Trump, who called it a “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY” on Truth Social. His legal team says they believe it is possible that special counsel Jack Smith’s case is now completely undermined because any communication Trump had with then-Vice President Mike Pence or Department of Justice officials could be considered official, precluding it from being introduced at trial.

The team also said it could even help Trump in the classified documents case, though the initial views do not necessarily mean that’s how the legal process will ultimately play out.

In a call with the media following the court’s ruling on Monday, the Biden campaign attacked the “conflicted and compromised” Supreme Court, accusing the justices of handing Trump “the keys to a dictatorship.”

Ruling hamstrings election subversion case

The Supreme Court made clear that unofficial actions do not receive immunity, and Smith has long made clear that he feels he could continue the case based on those unofficial actions. In that sense, if Smith narrowed his indictment, lower courts could hear the Trump trial this year.

But the high court also left a lot of work for those lower courts to sort out what constitutes an official act versus a private one.

Perhaps even more important, the majority made clear that official acts cannot be considered at all as evidence in a potential trial, which could make it much harder for Smith to demonstrate Trump’s motive and other aspects of Smith’s case against Trump. Roberts wrote that the lower courts may not look into a former president’s motive.

“Certain allegations – such as those involving Trump’s discussions with the Acting Attorney General – are readily categorized in light of the nature of the president’s official relationship to the office held by that individual,” Roberts wrote.

“Other allegations – such as those involving Trump’s interactions with the vice president, state officials, and certain private parties, and his comments to the general public – present more difficult questions,” Roberts wrote.

But Roberts said it is lower courts that must decide whether those actions “are subject to immunity, that analysis ultimately is best left to the lower courts to perform in the first instance.”

‘The President is now a king above the law’

Sotomayor, writing for the two other liberal justices, said the court’s ruling “makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law.”

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Let the President violate the law, let him exploit the trappings of his office for personal gain, let him use his official power for evil ends. Because if he knew that he may one day face liability for breaking the law, he might not be as bold and fearless as we would like him to be. That is the majority’s message today,” Sotomayor also wrote. “Even if these nightmare scenarios never play out, and I pray they never do, the damage has been done. 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.”

“With fear for our democracy, I dissent,” Sotomayor concluded.

This story has been updated with additional developments and reaction.

CNN’s Paula Reid, Nikki Carvajal and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.

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