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The Supreme Court will not fast-track the request to review Trump's immunity

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 2.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 2.

Updated December 22, 2023 at 5:48 PM ET

The Supreme Court has denied special counsel Jack Smith's bid tofast-track a dispute about whether former President Donald Trump should enjoy absolute immunity from prosecution for misconduct during his time in the White House.

The court did not offer a reason for its decision. The action now turns to the federal appeals court in Washington, which is set to hear argument in the matter on Jan. 9.

The question of immunity is still expected to reach the court, just on a longer timeline.

A decision by the nation's highest court could determine Trump's legal and political fate as the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination next year and set new precedent about the scope of presidential power. Trump's federal election interference trial in Washington, D.C., originally set for March, is on hold while the appeal proceeds.

The Supreme Court is the latest legal front for Trump, who is fighting 91 criminal charges across four different jurisdictions. Trump is trying to delay each of these trials until after the election, but any courtroom proceedings will likely dominate the campaign.

The arguments on each side

The court announced its decision after special counsel Jack Smith urged it to move quickly, citing issues of "exceptional national importance" in his Dec. 11 petition. Smith pointed out that the high court took just two months to hear and decide another landmark case about whether then-President Richard Nixon needed to turn over Watergate tapes back in 1974.

"Nothing could be more vital to our democracy than that a President who abuses the electoral system to remain in office is held accountable for criminal conduct," the special counsel team wrote in its petition to the court.

University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said the Supreme Court had agreed to fast-track appeals in 19 other cases over the past four years, including disputes about abortion, affirmative action and Biden's student loan forgiveness program.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to four felony charges that accuse him of a "systematic and deliberate attempt" to overturn the results of the 2020 election and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. He argues the prosecution amounts to interference in a presidential race and that it's designed to disadvantage him in favor of sitting president Joe Biden.

Trump welcomed the delay from the court and said he looked forward to the appeals court arguments early in the new year in a social media post Friday evening. "Of course I am entitled to presidential immunity," he wrote.

What the legal questions are

The dispute revolves around two critical questions: whether the presidency serves as a lifetime shield from federal criminal charges; and whether the ongoing prosecution violates the principle of double jeopardy because of Trump's impeachment over the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on immunity from criminal prosecution for a former occupant of the White House. But it has recognized a shield for some civil lawsuits involving money damages so long as a president was acting within the "outer perimeter" of his official duties.

Judges have determined that Trump acted as a political candidate, not a president, when he summoned protesters to Washington in early 2021, pressured his Vice President Mike Pence to delay certification of the votes and advanced a plot to substitute phony slates of electors in multiple swing states for legitimate ballots cast for Biden.

"[T]he United States has only one Chief Executive at a time, and that position does not confer a lifelong 'get-out-of-jail-free' pass," Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote in her opinion denying Trump's immunity claims. "Former Presidents enjoy no special conditions on their federal criminal liability."

How the various Trump cases converge

Trump had urged the Supreme Court to take a slower approach. His lawyers have pursued a strategy of delay in the D.C. trial, as well as other ongoing criminal prosecutions in Florida, Georgia and New York.

Trump awaits a decision in a New York civil trial where state authorities accuse him of business fraud. He is also the defendant in a defamation case filed by E. Jean Carroll, the writer; and the defendant in a separate, criminal proceeding involving hush money paid to Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress.

Trump is fighting state charges in Fulton County, Ga., related to the 2020 presidential election and federal charges related to his refusal to turn over highly sensitive classified documents he allegedly stored in a ballroom and a bathroom at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

If he regains the White House, Trump could direct the Justice Department to dismiss the federal cases against him and seek to postpone the state prosecutions for years, until he leaves government.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.