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Supreme Court Decision on Trump: Presidential Immunity and Its Implications

On July 1, 2024, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Trump v. United States addressing former President Donald Trump’s claim of presidential immunity. The case has been closely watched due to its potential impact on the accountability of former presidents for actions taken while in office.

Background of the Case

The central issue in this case was whether a former president could claim absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions taken during their presidency. Trump argued that his efforts to contest the 2020 election results were part of his official duties and therefore protected by presidential immunity. Special Counsel Jack Smith countered that only sitting presidents enjoy such immunity, and that extending this protection would effectively allow former presidents to evade accountability for criminal conduct.

Supreme Court’s Ruling

The ruling makes a distinction between the official actions of a president, which have immunity, and the unofficial acts of a president. In a 6 to 3 decision dividing along partisan lines, the justices said that Mr. Trump is immune from prosecution for official acts taken during his presidency but that there was a crucial distinction between official and private conduct.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, stating that broad immunity for official conduct is needed to protect “an energetic, independent executive.”

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. As for his remaining official actions, he is also entitled to immunity. At the current stage of proceedings in this case, however, we need not and do not decide whether that immunity must be absolute, or instead whether a presumptive immunity is sufficient.

However, Roberts added, 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’s majority opinion was joined by all three justices nominated by Trump, in addition to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Taking into account these competing considerations, we conclude that the separation of powers principles explicated in our precedent necessitate at least a presumptive immunity from criminal prosecution for a President’s acts within the outer perimeter of his official responsibility.

The Majority Decision in Trump v. United States

The majority ruled that former presidents have immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts taken while in office. Specifically:

  • Presidents have absolute immunity for actions within their “core constitutional powers.”
  • For other official acts, presidents have at least “presumptive immunity” from prosecution.
  • There is no immunity for unofficial acts.

The President enjoys no immunity for his unofficial acts, and not everything the President does is official. The President is not above the law. But under our system of separated powers, the President may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts.

Types of Presidential Immunity

Type of Act Level of Immunity Description
Core Constitutional Powers Absolute Immunity Presidents are completely immune from prosecution for actions within their core constitutional powers.
Other Official Acts Presumptive Immunity Presidents have at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for other official acts.
Unofficial Acts No Immunity Presidents do not have immunity for unofficial acts.

The Dissent in Trump v. United States

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent (joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson) argued:

  1. The majority’s ruling has no basis in constitutional text, history or precedent.
  2. It effectively places the president above the law for official acts.
  3. It will have disastrous consequences for democracy and the rule of law.

Today’s decision to grant former Presidents criminal immunity reshapes the institution of the Presidency. It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by her liberal colleagues, Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, wrote that the decision was gravely misguided, declaring that their colleagues had made the president into “a king above the law.”

This new official-acts immunity now ‘lies about like a loaded weapon’ for any president that wishes to place his own interests, his own political survival, or his own financial gain, above the interests of the nation.

Justice Jackson’s separate dissent emphasized:

  1. The majority created a new “Presidential accountability model” that exempts presidents from generally applicable criminal laws.
  2. This shifts power to the judiciary to decide when laws apply to presidents.
  3. It undermines deterrence and invites abuse of power.

The Court has now declared for the first time in history that the most powerful official in the United States can (under circumstances yet to be fully determined) become a law unto himself.

Both dissents strongly disagreed with the majority’s reasoning and warned of grave consequences for the rule of law and separation of powers.

Implications and Future Considerations

The case now returns to the lower court, which will decide whether the actions Mr. Trump took were in an official or private capacity. The Supreme Court’s decision upends the case against Donald J. Trump over his attempts to subvert his 2020 election loss.

What’s Next for Trump?

The ruling will affect whether Trump faces a federal trial this year on four felony counts brought by special counsel Jack Smith, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of an official proceeding.

As the case returns to the lower courts, the nation will continue to watch closely to see how this precedent shapes the future of presidential immunity and accountability.

Trump v. United States Opinion

Varghese Summersett is a premier criminal defense firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. Our attorneys focus exclusively on criminal law and represent clients charged with crimes at both the state and federal level. We handle everything from DWI to capital murder to white collar crime. Collectively, our attorneys bring together more than 100 years of criminal law experience and have tried more than 550 cases before Texas juries. All of our senior attorneys served as former state or federal prosecutors and four are Board Certified in Criminal law, the highest designation an attorney can reach. We are the firm people turn to when the stakes are high and they are facing the biggest problem in their lives. - Contact Varghese at  
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