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Supreme Court to weigh Trump’s immunity claim in D.C. 2020 election trial

The Supreme Court will review Donald Trump’s unprecedented claim that he is shielded from prosecution for actions taken while in office, further delaying the former president’s federal trial in the nation’s capital on charges of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to remain in power.

The justices set argument for the week of April 22 to consider a unanimous ruling from a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which on Feb. 6 rejected Trump’s sweeping assertion of immunity from prosecution.

Trump’s pretrial proceedings in D.C. will remain on hold until a ruling is issued, putting the Supreme Court in the politically fraught position of influencing the timing of an election-obstruction trial for the leading Republican presidential candidate.

The brief unsigned order issued Wednesday said the justices were not “expressing a view on the merits” of the case and would consider only the question of whether and to what extent a former president has “immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.”

The timing suggests the high court will resolve the dispute before its term ends in late June or early July, pushing any D.C. trial well into the presidential election season.

Trump faces four felony counts brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith in connection with what prosecutors allege was a plan to overturn Biden’s 2020 presidential victory: conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to obstruct the formal certification in Congress of President Biden’s victory, obstructing a congressional proceeding and conspiracy against rights — in this case, the right to vote.

He challenged the indictment, saying former presidents are immune from prosecution, at least for actions related to their official duties, unless first impeached and convicted by Congress. Early this month, the D.C. Circuit delivered a forceful rebuke of that novel argument.

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a president has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power — the recognition and implementation of election results,” wrote the three judges, two nominated by Biden and the third by President George H.W. Bush.

Trump asked the Supreme Court to put the appeals court ruling on pause and give him time to seek rehearing by a full complement of D.C. Circuit judges. His lawyers argued that he should not be sidelined from the campaign trail by a months-long criminal trial, and said voters have the right to hear from Trump on the stump.

In response to Trump’s request, Justice Department special counsel who is prosecuting the case urged the Supreme Court to quickly allow the D.C. trial to proceed and pushed back on Trump’s claim that the rights of American voters require a delay.

“To the contrary, the charges here involve applicant’s alleged efforts to disenfranchise tens of millions of voters,” Smith’s office wrote.

Instead, the Supreme Court is keeping the trial on hold, giving the justices the final say in the matter.

At least four of the nine justices must agree to take up any case. Legal experts have said there was good reason to think at least four would do so for Trump’s immunity appeal; he is the first former president to be charged with a crime, and the justices may want to have the last word on such a significant issue as whether he is shielded from prosecution.

The former president is separately facing a state trial in New York that is scheduled to start in late March on charges of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment during the 2016 election.

He’s also charged in Florida with allegedly mishandling classified documents and obstructing government efforts to retrieve them; that trial is scheduled for May 20 but could be pushed back at a hearing scheduled for Friday. And he was indicted in Georgia for allegedly participating in a massive conspiracy to undo the 2020 election results in that state.

The former president has pleaded not guilty in all the cases he faces.

Trump has also raised the question of presidential immunity in the criminal case against him in Florida, in which he is charged with illegally retaining classified materials after he left the White House and obstructing government efforts to retrieve them. He argued in a filing last week that most of Florida charges against him should be dismissed — noting he was still president when he packed up the classified documents and saying that he designated them at that time as personal materials.

He was no longer president when federal officials tried to retrieve the materials, however, and Trump’s lawyers did not argue that the obstruction-related charges should be dismissed on the grounds of presidential immunity.

Judge Aileen M. Cannon, who is overseeing the Florida case, must now determine whether she sees enough similarities between the presidential immunity arguments in her case and the D.C. case to hold up her pre-trial proceedings until the Supreme Court makes its decision.

Trump is seeking to delay all his trials until after the November election. If Trump is elected, he could try to appoint an attorney general once he takes office who would dismiss the two federal cases.

His request that the Supreme Court hear his immunity appeal was the second time this year that Trump turned to the nation’s highest court to intervene in an unprecedented legal question that could greatly affect his political future.

At oral argument on Feb. 8, the justices seemed inclined to reverse a ruling from Colorado’s top court that Trump should be barred from the ballot because of his conduct around the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. A ruling in that case could come at any time.

Perry Stein contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. It will be updated.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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