Monday, May 27, 2024

The Supreme Court declined on Friday to decide for now whether former President Donald J. Trump is immune from prosecution on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election.

The decision to defer consideration of a central issue in the case was a major practical victory for Mr. Trump, whose lawyers have consistently sought to delay criminal cases against him around the country.

It is unclear what the court’s order will mean for the timing of the trial, which is scheduled to start on March 4, though it makes postponement more likely. The case will now move forward in an appeals court, which has put it on a fast track, and most likely return to the Supreme Court in the coming weeks or months.

In denying review, the justices gave no reasons, which is typical, and there were no noted dissents.

Jack Smith, the special counsel prosecuting Mr. Trump, had asked the justices to move with extraordinary speed, bypassing the appeals court.

Any significant delays could plunge the trial into the heart of the 2024 campaign season or push it past the election, when Mr. Trump could order the charges be dropped if he wins the presidency.

A speedy decision by the justices was of the essence, Mr. Smith said in his petition seeking immediate Supreme Court review, because Mr. Trump’s appeal of a trial judge’s ruling rejecting his claim of immunity suspended the criminal trial.

Mr. Smith wrote that the case “presents a fundamental question at the heart of our democracy: whether a former president is absolutely immune from federal prosecution for crimes committed while in office or is constitutionally protected from federal prosecution when he has been impeached but not convicted before the criminal proceedings begin.”

“The United States recognizes that this is an extraordinary request,” Mr. Smith added. “This is an extraordinary case.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has put the case on a brisk schedule, ordering expedited briefing and scheduling arguments for Jan. 9.

The case will be heard by a three-member panel made up of Judge Karen L. Henderson, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and Judges Florence Y. Pan and J. Michelle Childs, who were both appointed by President Biden.

The panel will probably issue a prompt decision. If Mr. Trump loses, he could ask the full appeals court to rehear the case. In the end, the losing side will in all likelihood return to the Supreme Court.

The trial judge rejected Mr. Trump’s claims that he had “absolute immunity” from the election interference indictment because it was based on actions he took while in office. She has since suspended proceedings in the case while an appeal moves forward.

Mr. Smith urged the justices to move with urgency due to the public importance and the imminence of the trial date.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers took the opposite view, asking the justices to follow the usual procedure by letting the appeals court consider the matter first.

Importance does not automatically necessitate speed,” Mr. Trump’s brief said. “If anything, the opposite is usually true. Novel, complex, sensitive and historic issues — such as the existence of presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts — call for more careful deliberation, not less.”

Mr. Smith called that approach misguided.

“The public interest in a prompt resolution of this case calls for an immediate, definitive decision by this court,” he wrote. “The charges here are of the utmost gravity. This case involves — for the first time in our nation’s history — criminal charges against a former president based on his actions while in office.”

“And not just any actions: alleged acts to perpetuate himself in power by frustrating the constitutionally prescribed process for certifying the lawful winner of an election,” Mr. Smith added.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers countered that the case, and Mr. Smith’s desire to resolve it promptly, was driven by political considerations.

“He confuses the ‘public interest’ with the manifest partisan interest in ensuring that President Trump will be subjected to a monthslong criminal trial at the height of a presidential campaign where he is the leading candidate and the only serious opponent of the current administration,” the brief said.

The two sides rely on precedents that point in opposite directions, both involving President Richard M. Nixon.

In 1974, in United States v. Nixon, the court ruled that Nixon, then still in office, had to comply with a trial subpoena seeking tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, rejecting his claims of executive privilege.

“Neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances,” Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote.

Eight years later, in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, the court voted 5 to 4 in favor of Nixon in a civil case brought by an Air Force analyst who said he was fired in 1970 in retaliation for his criticism of cost overruns. By the time the court acted, Nixon had been out of office for several years.

“In view of the special nature of the president’s constitutional office and functions,” Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote for the majority, “we think it appropriate to recognize absolute presidential immunity from damages liability for acts within the ‘outer perimeter’ of his official responsibility.”

The Supreme Court will soon confront a different question arising from the aftermath of the 2020 election. On Tuesday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Trump is not eligible to be on the primary ballot in that state under a provision of the Constitution that bars officials who have engaged in insurrection from holding office. Mr. Trump has said he will appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Alan Feuer contributed reporting.

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