A panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously rejected former President Trump’s claim that he was immune from criminal prosecution on criminal charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 elections.
“For purposes of this criminal case, former President Trump became a Trump citizen, with all the defenses of any other criminal defendant. But any executive immunity that might have protected him while he was president no longer protects him from these prosecutions,” the three-judge panel wrote.
In a 57-page opinion, the Washington Circuit Court systematically tore apart the arguments presented by Donald Trump’s legal team.
“At its core, former President Trump’s position would fail our system of separate powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three branches,” the opinion said. “Presidential immunity from federal indictment would mean that, with respect to the president, Congress could not legislate, the executive could not prosecute, and the judiciary could not review. »
He continues: “We cannot accept that the presidency places its former occupants above the law forever. »
The justices also said the seriousness of the charges against Trump weighed in their decision, viewing the people’s interest in the election as a check on presidential power.
“Ignoring former President Trump’s actions would ‘further enlarge the presidential office, already so powerful and relatively immune from judicial review, at the expense of Congress,'” they wrote, citing the judge’s concurring opinion Robert H. Jackson in a statement. 1952 decision checking President Truman’s power.
Trump is charged with four federal crimes including conspiring to obstruct the official certification of Joe Biden’s election victory and seeking to defraud Americans out of their rightful votes.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in a written statement that Trump would appeal to the Supreme Court.
“Without full immunity, a President of the United States could not function properly!” » Cheung wrote. “Prosecuting a president for official acts violates the Constitution and threatens the foundation of our republic. »
In December, the High Court refused an emergency call from Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith take the case rather than wait for the opinion of the court of appeal.
Now that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled, the Supreme Court may agree resolve the constitutional question raised by Trump’s claims, or she could let the appeal decision stand, which would amount to a defeat for Trump.
The former president had announced his intention to use presidential immunity as a defense in his four criminal cases.
Whether Trump faces his first criminal trial this spring will depend on how quickly the Supreme Court acts.
The Washington judges said they would temporarily stay the criminal proceedings, giving Trump’s lawyers until Monday to ask the high court to intervene, and that the stay would continue “pending the Supreme Court’s final decision » on this emergency request.
If the Supreme Court justices reject Trump’s appeal, the case could be moved to trial in federal court by late spring. But if the justices delay their decision on whether to take up the case or agree to review the Washington court’s decision, Trump’s trial could be postponed at least until the fall.
Washington lawyer Neal Katyal said he doubted the Supreme Court would shield Trump from a lawsuit.
“Trump’s argument is so weak and the Court of Appeals’ decision so thorough and so well done that I see the court voting not to hear it,” Katyal said on social media shortly after the ruling.
Trump’s lawyers argued that the criminal charges should be dropped on the grounds that a former president cannot be charged with a crime for “official acts” while in the White House.
But Tuesday’s opinion rejected that premise, finding that “it would be a striking paradox if the President, who alone is vested with the constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ were the only officer capable of defying these laws with complete impunity. .”
Trump and his legal team have argued that a president cannot make necessary decisions for the country if he fears facing possible criminal charges when he leaves office.
“Any mistake, even if well-intentioned, would result in almost certain impeachment by the opposing party at the end of the term,” Trump said in an all-caps social media post on January 20.. “Even events that cross the line must fall under total immunity, otherwise it will take years of trauma trying to determine right from wrong.”
Tuesday’s opinion also rejects that argument, saying it falls short of historical precedent and that other former presidents have publicly acknowledged they were not completely immune from prosecution criminal charges for official acts.
Trump “acknowledges that this is the first time since the founding that a former president has been indicted at the federal level. Weighing these factors, we conclude that the risk that former presidents will be unduly harassed by meritless federal criminal prosecutions appears low,” it says.
The panel also rejected the argument that impeachment is the appropriate punishment for a president.
Trump was impeached by the House twice, including for his alleged efforts to remain in office, but he was not convicted by the Senate.
Trump’s claims “would leave a president free to commit all manner of crimes with impunity, until he is impeached and convicted,” the judges said. “No court has previously imposed such an irrational ‘indictment first’ constraint on criminal prosecutions of federal officials. »
Smith, who is suing Trump, argued that criminal charges can be brought once a president leaves office, particularly for actions that are unrelated to his official duties. That includes, Smith said, efforts to overturn the election results.
The special prosecutor said it would be dangerous for courts to rule that a president or former president has complete immunity from criminal charges.
The three-member D.C. panel included Judge Karen Henderson, appointed by Republican Party Chairman George HW Bush, and Judges J. Michelle Childs and Florence Pan, both appointed by Biden, a Democrat.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday on the related question of whether Trump can be disqualified from running for president again under the 14th Amendment, over allegations that he “engaged in insurrection” after losing the 2020 elections.
Times staff writers David G. Savage and David Lauter contributed to this report.
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