Feb 29, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court hands Trump a huge win before it even hears his case

Illustration of a silhouetted scales of justice, with the plates moving up and down.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Former President Trump has already won big at the Supreme Court — even if he ultimately loses.

The big picture: The justices agreed Wednesday to decide whether Trump enjoys "total immunity" from prosecution. The timing of that decision likely means a trial over Trump's role in Jan. 6 won't begin — much less end — before the election.

  • There's nothing Trump wants more in this case than a delay. If he wins in November and hasn't been tried before Inauguration Day, there's a good chance he never will be.
  • "This could well be game over," election law expert Rick Hasen wrote.

Where it stands: Trump's first briefs are due to the high court in about three weeks. Oral arguments will be in late April. That sets the stage for a ruling in late June, at the end of the court's term.

  • That's about as fast as the Supreme Court is capable of moving. The justices have kept the actual trial on ice in the meantime.

Why it matters: The fundamental issue in this case — whether presidents are fully immune from prosecution over anything they did in office, even after they've left it — is one of the most profound questions of presidential power the court has ever had to answer.

  • A lower court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected Trump's claims of immunity, ruling that he could be prosecuted for Jan. 6.

Between the lines: The justices had options here.

  • They could have declined to hear Trump's appeal. They wouldn't have had to tackle the question of presidential immunity, and Trump's trial would have proceeded before the election.
    • That's what some legal experts were anticipating, based on how long it took the justices to announce whether they'd hear the case.
  • Once they agreed to hear the appeal, and to decide whether presidents are beyond the reach of the criminal-justice system, keeping the trial paused makes sense.
    • If you're not sure whether someone can be prosecuted, it's logical not to prosecute them until you've figured that out.

The intrigue: What's the best-case scenario here for a court that's already on thin ice with the public?

  • The cynical view would be that most of the justices on the 6-3 conservative court want to do what's best for Trump.
  • The more idealistic answer would be that presidential immunity is a seismic legal question with grave implications for the future of the presidency and the rule of law, and resolving that question is more important than the start date of one trial.

For Democrats, the answer is much simpler: Their best-case scenario is for Trump to stand trial before the election.

  • For Trump, the best-case scenario is to stay out of court as long as possible and hope for the best in November.

The bottom line: The justices — whatever their motivations — were going to have to give one side or the other the thing it wanted most. It ended up being Trump.

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