Demonstrators participate in a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court

Demonstrators participate in a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court on April 25, 2024 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Supreme Court Urged to 'Rule Quickly' After Trump Immunity Arguments

"It'd be a travesty for justices to delay matters further," said one legal expert.

After about three hours of oral arguments Thursday on former President Donald Trump's immunity claims, legal experts and democracy defenders urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule swiftly, with just over six months until the November election.

Trump—the presumptive Republican candidate to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden, despite his 88 felony charges in four ongoing criminal cases—is arguing that presidential immunity should protect him from federal charges for trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden, which culminated in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Justices across the ideological spectrum didn't seem inclined to support Trump's broad immunity claims—which critics have said "reflect a misreading of constitutional text and history as well as this court's precedent." However, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) shared examples of what it would mean if they did.

"Trump could sell pardons, ambassadorships, and other official benefits to his wealthy donors, members of his clubs, or cronies who helped him commit other crimes," CREW warned. "Trump could sell nuclear codes and government secrets to help pay back crippling debts."

"But this isn't just about what Donald Trump could do. It's really about how total immunity for the president would threaten our democratic system of checks and balances," the group continued. "The president could order the military to assassinate activists, political opponents, members of Congress, or even Supreme Court justices, so long as he claimed it related to some official act."

After warning that a president could also order the occupation or closure of the Capitol or high court to prevent actions against him, CREW concluded that "the Supreme Court never should have taken this appeal up in the first place. They should rule quickly and shut these ludicrous claims down for good."

The organization was far from alone in demanding a quick decision from the nation's highest court.

"In the name of accountability, the court must not delay its decision," the Brennan Center for Justice said Thursday evening. "The Supreme Court's time is up. It needs to let the prosecution move forward. The court decided Bush v. Gore in three days—it should act with similar alacrity in deciding Trump v. U.S."

In Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 election, the high court issued a related stay on December 9, heard oral arguments on December 11, and issued a final decision on December 12.

On Thursday, the arguments "got away from the central question: Is a former president immune from criminal prosecution if he tried to overthrow a presidential election, using private means and the power of his office to do so?" the Brennan Center noted. "The answer is simple: No."

"It is not an 'official act' to try to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power or the Constitution, even if you conspire with other government officials to do it or use the Oval Office phone," the center said. "Trump's attorney was pushing the court to come up with a sea change in the law. That's unnecessary and a delay tactic that will hurt the pursuit of justice in this case."

In a departure from previous claims, Trump's attorney, D. John Sauer, "appeared to agree with Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the prosecution, that there are some allegations in the indictment that do not involve 'official acts' of the president," NBC Newsreported, noting questions from liberal Justice Elena Kagan and conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee.

Barrett summarized various allegations from the indictment and in three cases—involving dishonest election claims, false allegations of fraud, and fake electors—Sauer conceded that Trump's alleged conduct sounded private, suggesting that a more narrow case against the ex-president that excluded any potential official acts could proceed.

According to NBC:

Matthew Seligman, a lawyer and a fellow at the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School who filed a brief backing prosecutors, said Sauer's concessions highlight that Trump is "not immune for the vast majority of the conduct alleged in the indictment."

Ultimately, he said, the case will go to trial "absent some external intervention—like Trump ordering [the Justice Department] to drop the charges" after having won the election.

At the same time, Sauer's backtracking might have little consequence from an electoral perspective. Further delay in a trial, which Sauer is close to achieving, is a form of victory in itself.

Slate's Mark Joseph Stern pointed out that when Barrett similarly questioned Michael Dreeben, the U.S. Department of Justice lawyer arguing the case for Smith, it seemed like they "were trying to work out some compromise wherein the trial court could distinguish between official and unofficial acts, then instruct the jury not to impose criminal liability on the former."

"It was fascinating to watch Barrett nodding along as Dreeben pitched a compromise that would largely preserve Smith's January 6 prosecution but limit what the jury could hear, or at least consider," Stern added. "That, though, would take months to suss out in the trial court. More delays!"

Stern and other experts signaled that the decision likely comes down to Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts, with the three liberals seemingly supporting the prosecution of Trump and the other four conservatives suggesting it is unconstitutional.

People for the American Way president Svante Myrick said in a statement that "today's argument brought both good and bad news. It was chilling to hear Donald Trump's lawyer say that staging a military coup could be considered part of a president's official duties."

"Thankfully, the majority of the court, including conservative justices, did not seem to buy that very broad Trump argument that a former president is absolutely immune from prosecution under any circumstances," Myrick added. "On the other hand, it's not clear that there is a majority on this court that will quickly reject the immunity arguments and let the case go forward in time for a trial before the election. That's a huge concern."

Trump was not at the Supreme Court on Thursday; he was at his trial in New York, where he faces 34 counts for allegedly falsifying business records related to hush money payments to cover up sex scandals during the 2016 election cycle. The are two other cases: a federal one for mishandling classified material and another in Georgia for interfering with the last presidential contest.

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