Supreme Court gives Trump some immunity in Jan. 6 case, but not for 'unofficial acts'

The historic decision on presidential power will delay Trump's Jan. 6 trial.

July 1, 2024, 12:24 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said former President Donald Trump is entitled to some immunity from criminal prosecution for actions taken to overturn results of the 2020 election but sent the case back to the trial court to sort out which charges can stand, effectively delaying any potential trial until after the November election.

The blockbuster decision split the court along ideological lines, with the dissenters saying it makes a "mockery" of the principle that "no man is above the law."

The 6-3 opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

"The President is not above the law," the majority opinion read. "But under our system of separated powers, the President may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers, and he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts. That immunity applies equally to all occupants of the Oval Office."

Trump had claimed "absolute immunity" for all his actions, but Roberts noted that, "Trump asserts a far broader immunity than the limited one we have recognized."

The historic decision dramatically outlines the boundaries of presidential power, making clear for the first time that former presidents are entitled to absolute immunity for "core" official acts but have no immunity for "unofficial" acts.

The justices are sending the case back to the district court to determine what acts alleged in special counsel Jack Smith's indictment constitute official duties that could be protected from liability and which are not.

Trump is facing four felony counts, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of an official proceeding, for his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and has denied any wrongdoing.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attends the first presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, June 27, 2024.
Marco Bello/Reuters

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a fiery dissent read aloud from the bench, said the majority's decision "reshapes the institution of the presidency."

"It makes a mockery of the principle, foundational to our Constitution and system of Government, that no man is above the law," she wrote. Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

What are official versus unofficial acts?

Roberts noted the "difficult" task of discerning between a president's official and unofficial conduct, and outlined several guidelines for the lower courts.

"Certain allegations—such as those involving Trump's discussions with the Acting Attorney General—are readily categorized in light of the nature of the President's official relationship to the office held by that individual," he wrote. "Other allegations—such as those involving Trump's interactions with the Vice President, state officials, and certain private parties, and his comments to the general public—present more difficult questions."

The high court said in addition to core functions, actions within the "outer perimeter" of a president's official responsibilities are immune provided that are "not manifestly or palpably beyond his authority."

It also said courts may not take a president's motives into account. Doing so, Roberts argued, would "risk exposing even the most obvious instances of official conduct to judicial examination on the mere allegation of improper purpose."

Also not relevant to the assessment on official versus unofficial conduct, the high court said, is the fact that an action would have allegedly violated a generally applicable law.

A view of the Supreme Court as the court hears arguments on the immunity of former President Donald Trump, April 25, 2024, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

'Fear for our democracy'

In her dissent, Sotomayor went on to say the court's ruling makes the president "now a king above the law."

"The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the country, and possibly the world. When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution," she wrote. "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."

Sotomayor’s final words: “With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

Roberts vigorously disputed the dissent's characterization, calling it "wholly disproportionate to what the Court actually does today."

"Like everyone else, the President is subject to prosecution in his unofficial capacity," the chief justice wrote. "But unlike anyone else, the President is a branch of government, and the Constitution vests in him sweeping powers and duties.