By accepting Trump’s immunity claim, the Supreme Court reinforced its delay strategy


The Supreme Court that former President Donald J. Trump helped shape threw him a legal lifeline Wednesday night, making a decision that substantially helped his efforts to delay his federal trial on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

By deciding to accept Trump’s claim that presidents enjoy near-total immunity from prosecution for any official action while in office (a legal theory rejected by two lower courts and which few experts believe has any basis in the Constitution) , judges bought the former president at least several months before a trial on election interference charges can begin.

It is not out of the question that Trump could still face a jury in the case, in Federal District Court in Washington, before Election Day. At this point, the legal calendar suggests that if the justices rule before the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June and determine that Trump is not immune from prosecution, the trial could still begin in late September or October.

But with each delay, the odds increase that voters won’t have a chance to hear evidence that Trump tried to subvert the last election before deciding whether to back him in the current one.

If Trump manages to delay the trial until after Election Day and wins, he could use the powers of his office to try to dismiss the election interference charge entirely. Additionally, Justice Department policy prevents prosecuting a sitting president, meaning that once he is sworn in, any federal trial he faces will likely be postponed until after he leaves office.

At first glance, the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday night was a purely logistical decision. The judges decided to suspend trial preparations while they review a lower court’s rejection of the immunity defense. They set a hearing on the issue for the end of April.

In practice, however, the court’s decision slowed down the process of resolving the immunity debate, validating what seemed like a last-ditch move by Trump’s legal team to find a way to continue delaying the trial date until the end. The campaign was over.

A spokesman for Jack Smith, the special prosecutor handling the election case in Washington, declined to comment on the court’s decision. Within the Trump camp, the court’s ruling was seen as an important victory, but not a decisive one.

A year ago, when Trump was first criminally charged, in Manhattan, and then, over the course of the next five months, charged three more times (in Florida, Washington and Georgia), it looked like he was going to spend much of 2024 in front of a jury. Now, however, if events derail him, he could only go to trial once before the November election.

In that case, a state judge in Manhattan set a March 25 start date for the trial of the former president accused of arranging hush payments to a porn star in an effort to avoid a scandal on the eve of the 2016 election.

And on Friday, a federal judge in Florida will hold a hearing to reset the clock on Trump’s other federal trial, the one in which he is accused of mishandling dozens of classified documents after he left office. That trial was scheduled to begin in May, but now may or may not take place before Election Day.

The Georgia case is also mired in pretrial standoffs that have raised questions about when, or even if, it will proceed.

The election interference case in Washington was supposed to have been the first of Trump’s four criminal proceedings to go before a jury. Months ago, the judge supervising him, Tanya S. Chutkan, set the trial date for March 4.

But Trump then filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that he enjoyed complete immunity from the charges because they arose from acts he took as president. While the claim was unprecedented and ran counter to basic legal and constitutional principles, it had a powerful draw for Trump’s lawyers: Once filed, Judge Chutkan was required to stay the underlying case until the immunity issue was resolved.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Washington weighed in on the issue, rejecting the immunity defense in a scathing unanimous ruling that found Trump was subject to federal criminal law like any other American.

He then asked the Supreme Court to keep the trial process on hold while the justices decided whether they wanted to weigh in on the issue, perhaps hoping less that the justices would agree with him on the merits of his claims than that they could take responsibility. he asks and takes his time making a decision.

And that is precisely what the court did on Wednesday.

The question of when the trial will finally take place has been complicated by Judge Chutkan’s insistence that Trump not waste time preparing for the proceedings while the pause in the case remains in effect. She has suggested in court papers that, in the interest of fairness, the former president should be given an extra day to prepare for each of those lost to the suspension.

Judge Chutkan froze the election case on December 13. That means that if she sticks with her decision, she owes Mr. Trump an additional 82 days of preparation time, equal to the period between Dec. 13 and the trial date originally scheduled for March. 4. If the Supreme Court rules on the immunity decision in June and trial preparations resume immediately, the additional 82 days could push the trial date back to September.

At that time, the general election campaign would be in full swing and there would be no guarantee that the trial could conclude on election day.

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