Supreme Court Grants Immunity in Trump’s 2020 Election Interference Case

On July 1, 2024, the United States Supreme Court granted former President Donald J. Trump broad immunity from criminal prosecution related to any Executive Branch official conduct.

Trump v. United States concerns the alleged interference of the November 2020 election. Former President Trump was indicted on four counts; the indictment alleged that Trump conspired to overturn the election by knowingly spreading false claims of election fraud. Trump moved to dismiss the indictment on the grounds of presidential immunity. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the motion, ruling that former Presidents do not possess federal criminal immunity for any acts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that “the nature of Presidential power entitles a former President to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority. And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for all his official acts. There is no immunity for unofficial acts.” The Supreme Court cited the constitutional structure of separated powers as the basis for this ruling.

The Court looked to the “Framers’ design of the Presidency within the separation of powers, our precedent on Presidential immunity in the civil context, and our criminal cases where a President resisted prosecutorial demands for documents.” After looking at precedent, including Nixon v. Fitzgerald and United States v. Burr, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “we conclude that the separation of powers principles explicated in our precedent necessitates at least a presumptive immunity from criminal prosecution for a President’s acts within the outer perimeter of his official responsibility.” The Court looked to Clinton v. Jones to confirm that there is no immunity for a President’s unofficial acts. “The separation of powers does not bar a prosecution predicated on the President’s unofficial acts.”

Further, the Court provided guidance as to how to separate a President’s official conduct from unofficial conduct. “[C]ourts may not inquire into the President’s motives. Such an inquiry would risk exposing even the most obvious instances of official conduct to judicial examination on the mere allegation of improper purpose, thereby intruding on the Article II interests that immunity seeks to protect.” The Court also highlighted that “courts [may not] deem an action unofficial merely because it allegedly violates a generally applicable law.” Finally, the Court clarified that “immunity applies equally to all occupants of the Oval Office, regardless of politics, policy, or party.”

Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined Chief Justice Roberts in full, while Justice Barrett joined except as to Part III-C of the opinion. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Kagan and Justice Jackson joined. Justice Jackson also filed a dissenting opinion.

Additional Reading

US Supreme Court rules Trump has broad immunity from prosecution, Reuters (July 1, 2024)

Trump v. United States, 603 U.S. ___ (2024)

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