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The Supreme Court will decide whether Trump is immune from federal prosecution. Here's what's next

News

The Supreme Court will decide whether Trump is immune from federal prosecution. Here's what's next
News

News

The Supreme Court will decide whether Trump is immune from federal prosecution. Here's what's next

2024-04-22 23:01 Last Updated At:04-23 00:02

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week with profound legal and political consequences: whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

In addition to establishing a potentially historic ruling about the scope of presidential power, the court’s decision — whenever it comes — will undoubtedly go a long way in determining a trial date for Trump in one of the four criminal prosecutions that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee faces.

A quick decision in the Justice Department’s favor could conceivably put the case on track for trial this fall. But if the court takes until late June to resolve the question, then the likelihood rises substantially that the November presidential election will happen without a jury ever being asked to decide whether Trump is criminally responsible for efforts to undo an election he lost in the weeks leading up to the violent Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

A look at what’s ahead:

A straightforward but legally untested question: whether a former president is immune from federal prosecution for official acts.

Trump is the first ex-president to face criminal charges, making his appeal the first time in the country’s history that the Supreme Court has had occasion to weigh in on this issue.

Though Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, there’s no bar against charging a former one. Special counsel Jack Smith’s team says the Founding Fathers never intended for presidents to be above the law and that, in any event, the acts Trump is charged with — including participating in a scheme to enlist fake electors in battleground states won by President Joe Biden — aren’t in any way part of a president’s official duties.

Trump’s lawyers, by contrast, say former presidents are entitled to absolute immunity. They warn of a potential floodgate of prosecutions against former presidents if they’re not entitled to immunity and say the office cannot function if the commander-in-chief has to be worried about criminal charges. And they cite a previous Supreme Court ruling that presidents are immune from civil liability for official acts, saying the same analysis should apply in a criminal context.

The Supreme Court will actually be the third set of judges to address the question in the last six months.

Trump’s lawyers last October asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, the trial judge overseeing the case, to dismiss the indictment on presidential immunity grounds.

The judge squarely rejected Trump’s claims of absolute immunity, saying in December that the office of the presidency does not confer a “lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.”

An appeals court in February held the same, with a three-judge panel saying that for the purposes of this case, “former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant.”

Trump appealed to the high court, which after several weeks, announced that it would consider “whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.”

The justices have multiple paths to decide the case. They’ll probably meet in private a short time after arguments to take a preliminary vote on the outcome. Chief Justice John Roberts would be a prime candidate to take on the opinion for the court, assuming he is in the majority.

They could simply reject Trump’s immunity claim outright, permitting the prosecution to move forward and returning the case to Chutkan to set a trial date.

They could also reverse the lower courts by declaring for the first time that former presidents may not be prosecuted for conduct related to official acts during their time in office. Such a decision would stop the prosecution in its tracks.

There are other options, too, including ruling that former presidents do retain some immunity for their official actions but that, wherever that line is drawn, Trump’s actions fall way beyond it.

Yet another possibility is that the court sends the case back to Chutkan with an assignment to decide whether the actions Trump is alleged to have taken to stay in power constitute official acts.

A court ruling in Trump's favor should have no bearing on the hush-money trial now underway in New York in part because that state-level case involves actions Trump took before he became president. And though Trump's lawyers have made the same immunity argument in a federal case in Florida charging him with hoarding classified documents, that case accuses Trump of illegally retaining the records and obstructing efforts to get them back after he left office — rather than during his presidency.

How quickly the court moves after arguments could depend on how much agreement there is among the justices. Unanimous opinions almost always take less time to write than those that sharply divide the court.

If the justices rule against Trump and in favor of the government, the case would be returned to Chutkan, who would then be empowered to restart the clock on trial preparations and set a trial date.

Any trial would still be several months away, in part because of Chutkan’s decision last December to effectively freeze the case pending the outcome of Trump’s appeal. She’s also committed to giving prosecutors and defense lawyers time to get ready for trial if the case returns to her court.

That means that outstanding legal disputes that have been unresolved for months will again take center stage, not to mention new arguments and court fights that have yet to even surface but will also take up time on the calendar.

The trial is likely to take months, meaning it would likely threaten to run up against the election if it doesn’t begin by August. Smith’s team has said the government’s case should take no longer than four to six weeks, but that doesn’t include any defense Trump could put on. And jury selection alone could take weeks.

The timing of the trial — and whether Trump will be forced to sit in a Washington courtroom in the weeks leading up to the election — carries enormous political ramifications.

If Trump secures the GOP nomination and defeats Biden in November, he could potentially try to order a new attorney general to dismiss the federal cases against him or he could even seek a pardon for himself — though that is a legally untested proposition.

Smith’s team didn’t mention the election in its filing urging the Supreme Court to reject Trump’s effort to further delay the case. But prosecutors noted that the case has “unique national importance,” adding that “delay in the resolution of these charges threatens to frustrate the public interest in a speedy and fair verdict.”

Trump, meanwhile, has accused Smith of trying to rush the case to trial for political reasons. Trump’s lawyers told the Supreme Court in their filing that holding the trial “at the height of election season will radically disrupt President Trump’s ability to campaign against President Biden — which appears to be the whole point of the Special Counsel’s persistent demands for expedition.”

FILE - The Supreme Court of the United States is seen in Washington, March 26, 2024. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week with profound legal and political consequences: whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, File)

FILE - The Supreme Court of the United States is seen in Washington, March 26, 2024. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week with profound legal and political consequences: whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, File)

FILE - President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week with profound legal and political consequences: whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

FILE - President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week with profound legal and political consequences: whether former President Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in a federal case charging him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Next Article

Fani Willis and judge presiding over Georgia Trump election case defeat challengers

2024-05-22 10:09 Last Updated At:10:10

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the Georgia prosecutor who brought a sprawling racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and others, has won the Democratic primary in her bid for reelection.

Willis defeated progressive attorney Christian Wise Smith in the primary election and is now set to face off against Republican Courtney Kramer in the fall. Willis told reporters after her victory that the voters sent a message that “people want a DA that is just, that treats everybody equally and that works hard, and they know that they have that in me.”

Meanwhile, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge who was randomly assigned to preside over the election interference case, also fended off a challenger, winning a nonpartisan election to keep his seat.

The Trump election case and racketeering cases against well-known rappers have boosted Willis’ public profile. But on Tuesday night she touted her efforts to fight violent crime by being tough on gang members while also saying she worked to give second chances to first offenders and created programs to catch at-risk youth before they get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The people said yes to justice. The people said yes to safety. The people said yes to integrity. The people said yes to Fani Willis," Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said to applause Tuesday night at Willis' victory party.

With her name recognition, the advantages of incumbency and a hefty fundraising haul, Willis’ victory in the primary was not terribly surprising. As she moves on to the general election, the odds would seem to be in her favor as well. Fulton County includes most of the city of Atlanta and is heavily Democratic, about 73% of its voters having cast ballots for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

But Willis was taking nothing for granted after her primary win, telling supporters, “The campaign does not end tonight. It begins tonight.”

“My opponent is completely unqualified,” she said, later adding, “But while she is inexperienced and unqualified and does not represent the values of my county, don't get confused. She is a real threat because of who backs her and how they back her.”

Willis urged her supporters to continue to back her financially, noting that there was a store selling campaign merchandise onsite during her victory party.

Kramer, who has ties to some of Trump’s most prominent allies in Georgia and has drawn campaign contributions from both the county and state Republican parties, told reporters when she qualified to run that the Trump indictment prompted her to challenge Willis. In a post on the social media platform X earlier this month, she wrote, “The future of Fulton and safety in our community should not be controlled by self-interested politicians who use their office for political law fare. It’s time for a change.”

McAfee has been on the bench since last year when Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to fill an empty seat. He has since become one of the most high-profile judges in Georgia since he was randomly assigned last year to preside over the election interference case. With the added advantages of incumbency, strong bipartisan backing from heavy hitters and an impressive fundraising haul, he was the likely favorite to win.

Willis and Smith both worked in the Fulton County district attorney’s office under then-District Attorney Paul Howard. They both challenged their former boss in the Democratic primary in 2020. Willis and Howard advanced to a runoff that she won, and she ran unopposed in the November general election that year.

Kramer ran unopposed in the Republican primary Tuesday and has already been focusing her attention on attacking Willis. A lawyer who interned in the Trump White House, she has ties to some of the former president's prominent allies in Georgia.

Kramer and her backers will undoubtedly continue to focus on what even some of Willis' closest allies have seen as a major misstep — her romantic relationship with a special prosecutor she hired for the election case. Claims by defense attorneys in the case that the romance created a conflict of interest threatened to derail the prosecution.

McAfee ultimately ruled that it did not create a conflict of interest that should disqualify Willis, but he said she could only continue the case if the special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, stepped aside. Wade promptly left the case, but a defense appeal of McAfee's ruling is now pending before the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Wade was among those gathered at an event space in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood Tuesday evening to celebrate Willis' win.

Willis obtained an indictment in August against Trump and 18 others, accusing them of participating in an alleged illegal scheme to overturn Trump's narrow loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors. Trump and the 14 others who remain have pleaded not guilty.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to the media after winning the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to the media after winning the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

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