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US Supreme Court Rules Presidents Have ‘Some Immunity’ From Criminal Prosecution

Published: July 2, 2024
WASHINGTON, DC - OCT. 05: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Oct. 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Image: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

On July 1 (Monday), the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. presidents cannot be prosecuted for actions that were within their constitutional powers as president, marking the first time any form of presidential immunity from prosecution has been ruled on by the nation’s highest court. 

The 6-3 ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, has wide reaching implications, particularly for former president Donald Trump, who, before the ruling, was scheduled to be sentenced in his hush money trial. 

Following the ruling, Trump’s sentencing was delayed until Sept. 18, after Trump’s legal team filed legal arguments in his favor. 

The ruling concluded 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.”

Roberts wrote that former presidents have “absolute” immunity with respect to their “core constitutional powers” and that a former president has “at least a presumptive immunity” for “acts within the outer perimeter of his official responsibility,” which has been interpreted as meaning that prosecutors need to meet a high legal bar to prosecute a former president. 


‘A dangerous precedent’

The White House was quick to criticize the ruling, with President Biden calling it “a dangerous precedent,” arguing that the power of the presidency will, going forward, not be constrained by the law.

In televised comments Biden said, “This nation was founded on the principle that there are no kings in America … no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States.”

In the ruling, Roberts was clear that the president needs to be able to “execute the duties of his office fearlessly and fairly” without the threat of prosecution. 

This, however, is for official acts; for unofficial acts Roberts wrote that “there is no immunity.”

The ruling is being lauded by the Trump camp as a major win, with Trump writing in a social media post, “BIG WIN FOR OUR CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY. PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”

Trump, who is the first former U.S. president to be criminally prosecuted and the first to be convicted, now has new avenues to pursue concerning his numerous legal cases. 

Trump had asked for a broader form of immunity from the courts for official acts unless Congress had impeached and convicted him for those acts.  

Previously, D.C. District Judge, Tanya Chutkan, rejected the idea as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.


Judicial dissenters

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown, who voted against the ruling, delivered a blistering dissent, saying that the ruling creates a “law-free zone around the president.”

Sotomayor wrote, “When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune, immune, immune, immune,” adding that, “In every use of official power, the president is now a king above the law.”

Sotomayor lamented that the nation’s highest court gave Trump “all the immunity he asked for and more.”

“Relying on little more than its own misguided wisdom about the need for bold and unhesitating action by the president, the court gives former President Trump all the immunity he asked for and more,” she wrote.

Sotomayor argues that the ruling “will have disastrous consequences for the Presidency and for our democracy,” and that it sends the message: “Let the President violate the law, let him exploit the trappings of his office for personal gain, let him use his official power for evil ends.”

“Even if these nightmare scenarios never play out, and I pray they never do, the damage has been done. The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”