Litman: After the Supreme Court's immunity ruling, can Donald Trump still be tried for Jan. 6?

People protest, Monday, July 1, 2024, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, as decisions are announced. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Protesters outside the Supreme Court on Monday. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court ended a tumultuous term with one final sledgehammer blow on Monday. Its decision on Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from criminal charges forecloses any possibility that he will be tried for Jan. 6 before the election, substantially guts the prosecution and reshapes the Constitution to place the president singularly beyond the reach of criminal law.

The opinion was even more expansive in its grant of presidential immunity than commentators anticipated after the oral argument suggested the conservative majority was headed that way. And while it theoretically permits prosecution of some of the long list of Trump’s pernicious and treacherous acts in the weeks after the 2020 election, it erects a series of legal roadblocks and presumptions that make it anyone’s guess whether Trump will ever face accountability under the indictment.

The court’s essential holding is that constitutional principles of separation of powers forbid the criminal prosecution of a former president for “official acts” that took place during his term, while allowing it for “unofficial” acts. The 6-3 decision broke down along familiar lines, with the conservative majority continuing its project of remaking the law and the structure of the federal government.

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How to draw the line between official and unofficial conduct? The court provides several criteria that, albeit somewhat opaque, clearly protect swaths of conduct that would strike nearly everyone as corrupt and lawless — not least much of what Trump undertook after the 2020 election.

For starters, the court prescribes absolute immunity for any exercise of “core constitutional powers.” These include at a minimum the enumerated presidential powers of Article 2 of the Constitution, such as acting as commander in chief of the armed forces, issuing pardons and appointing judges. A president acting within these areas is untouchable.

Importantly, the court holds that this immunity precludes any consideration of motive. So a president who, for example, issues a pardon in return for a bribe or fires an executive branch official out of racial animus is just as protected from the law as one who takes such actions for appropriate and conventional reasons.

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This could authorize some of the most vicious and problematic presidential conduct. There is no apparent reason, for example, that it doesn’t encompass what had been taken as a devastating hypothetical offered by Judge Florence Y. Pan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit: a president’s use of Navy SEALs to assassinate a political rival. If the reason for a president’s use of commander-in-chief powers is outside the bounds of inquiry, such conduct is indistinguishable from a conventional military mission.

Motive is the soul of the criminal law. It’s what divides conduct society accepts from conduct for which we put people in prison. The declaration that it has no role to play in determining a president’s criminal liability is nearly tantamount to making him a king.

Yet the court’s decision goes considerably further. It immunizes not just core constitutional functions but also any conduct within the outer perimeter of executive authority — the same capacious standard that already applies to civil lawsuits over presidential conduct.

And though there is some debate on this point, the court appears to go even further by imposing a presumption of immunity for conduct outside that perimeter unless the government shows that a prosecution would “pose no dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.”

How this will play out in the Jan. 6 prosecution is to some extent for U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to try to figure out, with Trump challenging every move she makes along the way. The court emphasizes that distinguishing “the President’s official actions from his unofficial ones can be difficult” and may necessitate a “fact-specific” inquiry into their context (not including the president’s motive).

But the court drops some very strong hints about which aspects of the prosecution are precluded. It essentially says that Trump’s alleged efforts to level false accusations of election fraud in Georgia with the aid of a Justice Department functionary are off-limits. That’s because the charge implicates the president’s official power to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The opinion also strongly suggests that the alleged plot to strong-arm Vice President Mike Pence into violating the Constitution may be protected because it pertains to the interactions of the executive branch’s top two officials.

And the court seems to want to give a pass to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric near the Capitol on Jan. 6 on the basis that communication with the public is part of what the president does.

The only aspect of the indictment that the court seems disposed to preserve is the alleged extensive effort to set up fraudulent slates of electors. Even there, however, the court prescribes a detailed inquiry that puts the burden on special counsel Jack Smith’s team to counter Trump’s argument that his conduct was official “because it was undertaken to ensure the integrity and proper administration of the federal election.”

Even if Trump loses the election and the case is allowed to proceed beyond this year, it will require more time-consuming legal combat. Every aspect of the application of the court’s opinion to the case could be appealed to the D.C. circuit and the Supreme Court.

And where does it all come from, this fundamental reordering of our tripartite system of government and the principle — to which the court continues to give lip service — that the president is not above the law?

The answer is no more than the court’s view that the president must be able to take bold and energetic action without worrying about subsequent criminal prosecution. The justices are not, strictly speaking, interpreting any provision of the Constitution but rather applying their notion of what makes for an effective president. The conservative majority is essentially grafting its political science principles onto constitutional structure and using them to drive a truck through the principle of equality before the law.

The majority dismisses the liberal dissenters’ insistence that the decision puts the president above the law as amounting to “ignoring the Constitution’s separation of powers and the Court’s precedent and instead fear mongering on the basis of extreme hypotheticals about a future where the president ‘feels empowered to violate a federal criminal law.’ ”

But there is nothing fearmongering, unrealistic or extreme about those worries. They concern a reality that is right before the justices’ eyes. They have chosen to ignore it, ensuring that justice for the most serious assault on the Constitution in our history will be much delayed and largely denied.

Harry Litman is the host of the “Talking Feds” podcast and the "Talking San Diego" speaker series. @harrylitman

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.