Supreme Court takes up Trump's presidential immunity from prosecution appeal

 February 29, 2024

In a massive development that, at least in the immediate term, benefits former President Donald Trump, the Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it had decided to take up the question of his claim of presidential immunity from criminal prosecution, Breitbart reported.

That has the instant effect of keeping his 2020 election-related federal case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith in a Washington D.C. district court paused indefinitely, potentially until after the 2024 election in November.

More broadly, should a majority of the justices ultimately rule in Trump's favor, it eventually could also result in the dismissal of not just the federal election-related case in D.C. but also Smith's other prosecution of the former president in South Florida for his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House, as well as possibly also the two state-level criminal prosecutions Trump faces in New York and Georgia.

Oral arguments set for April 22

In a one-page unsigned order issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court announced, "The application for a stay presented to The Chief Justice is referred by him to the Court. The Special Counsel’s request to treat the stay application as a petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, and that petition is granted limited to the following question."

That question is: "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."

"Without expressing a view on the merits, this Court directs the Court of Appeals to continue withholding issuance of the mandate until the sending down of the judgment of this Court," the order continued. "The application for a stay is dismissed as moot."

The order went on to set April 22 as the date for oral arguments. It further gave Trump, and any amicus briefs filed in his support, until March 19 to file his brief on the merits, set April 8 as the date for Special Counsel Smith and amicus briefs in his support to file a response, and then gave Trump until April 15 to file any reply, if necessary, to Smith's response brief.

The winding trail of Trump's immunity appeals

SCOTUSblog reported that former President Trump initially raised his claim of presidential immunity from criminal prosecution last year but had his argument rejected by D.C. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in early December. Simultaneously, however, the judge also indefinitely paused all pre-trial proceedings in the case that was initially set to go to trial in March until the appeals process had been resolved.

At that time, while Trump pursued the normal course to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Special Counsel Smith sought to bypass the appellate process and urged the Supreme Court to swiftly address the matter, only for that unconventional approach to be denied.

The D.C. Circuit's three-judge panel eventually unanimously upheld Chutkan's dismissal of Trump's immunity claim on Feb. 6, and further instructed the district court to resume its pre-trial schedule within a matter of days.

That set the stage for Trump to further appeal the matter with either a request for an en banc review by the entire circuit court or a petition for Supreme Court intervention in the form of a stay to keep the district court proceedings paused. Meanwhile, Smith again urged swift action from the Supreme Court with a request that Trump's application for a stay be treated the same as a petition for review, which is what was just accepted.

One possible outcome seems most likely

It seems highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will adopt the same position as the district and circuit courts, that former President Trump enjoys no presidential immunity from prosecution whatsoever, as they could have simply rejected the requests for intervention and allowed the appellate panel's ruling to stand if that were the case.

Yet it also seems unlikely that the justices will fully embrace Trump's claim of "absolute" and infinite immunity from all prosecution for any acts conducted during his tenure as president.

Instead, the most probable outcome is somewhere in between, in that Trump retains immunity for "official acts" but can be prosecuted for non-official acts that were allegedly criminal, which would compel the district court to then determine whether Trump's alleged criminal acts were "official" or not, which would almost certainly set off another round of appeals to be settled by the Supreme Court, undoubtedly delaying the D.C. trial even further ... if it ever even occurs at all.

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