How the U.S. Supreme Court Decided on the Outcome of Trump v United States

3 Jul 2024

Trump v. United States Court Filing, retrieved on July 1, 2024, is part of HackerNoon’s Legal PDF Series. You can jump to any part in this filing here. This part is 5 of 21.



Trump asserts a far broader immunity than the limited one we have recognized. He contends that the indictment must be dismissed because the Impeachment Judgment Clause requires that impeachment and Senate conviction precede a President’s criminal prosecution. Brief for Petitioner 16.

The text of the Clause provides little support for such an absolute immunity. It states that an impeachment judgment “shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” Art. I, §3, cl. 7. It then specifies that “the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” Ibid. (emphasis added).

The Clause both limits the consequences of an impeachment judgment and clarifies that notwithstanding such judgment, subsequent prosecution may proceed. By its own terms, the Clause does not address whether and on what conduct a President may be prosecuted if he was never impeached and convicted.

Historical evidence likewise lends little support to Trump’s position. For example, Justice Story reasoned that without the Clause’s clarification that “Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment” may nevertheless follow Senate conviction, “it might be matter of extreme doubt, whether . . . a second trial for the same offence could be had, either after an acquittal, or a conviction in the court of impeachments.” 2 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §780, p. 251 (1833). James Wilson, who served on the Committee that drafted the Clause and later as a Justice of this Court, similarly concluded that acquittal of impeachment charges posed no bar to subsequent prosecution. See 2 Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution 492 (M. Jensen ed. 1979).

And contrary to Trump’s contention, Alexander Hamilton did not disagree. The Federalist Papers on which Trump relies, see Brief for Petitioner 17–18, concerned the checks available against a sitting President. Hamilton noted that unlike “the King of Great-Britain,” the President “would be liable to be impeached” and “removed from office,” and “would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment.” The Federalist No. 69, at 463; see also id., No. 77, at 520 (explaining that the President is “at all times liable to impeachment, trial, dismission from office . . . and to the forfeiture of life and estate by subsequent prosecution”). Hamilton did not endorse or even consider whether the Impeachment Judgment Clause immunizes a former President from prosecution.

The implication of Trump’s theory is that a President who evades impeachment for one reason or another during his term in office can never be held accountable for his criminal acts in the ordinary course of law. So if a President manages to conceal certain crimes throughout his Presidency, or if Congress is unable to muster the political will to impeach the President for his crimes, then they must forever remain impervious to prosecution.

Impeachment is a political process by which Congress can remove a President who has committed “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Art. II, §4. Transforming that political process into a necessary step in the enforcement of criminal law finds little support in the text of the Constitution or the structure of our Government.


The Government for its part takes a similarly broad view, contending that the President enjoys no immunity from criminal prosecution for any action. It maintains this view despite agreeing with much of our analysis.

For instance, the Government does not dispute that Congress may not criminalize Presidential conduct within the President’s “conclusive and preclusive” constitutional authority. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 133 (“[C]ore powers . . . can’t be regulated at all, like the pardon power and veto.”); see also id., at 84–85.

And it too accords protection to Presidential conduct if subjecting that conduct to generally applicable laws would “raise serious constitutional questions regarding the President’s authority” or cause a “possible conflict with the President’s constitutional prerogatives.” Application of 28 U. S. C. §458 to Presidential Appointments of Federal Judges, 19 Op. OLC 350, 351–352 (1995); see Brief for United States 26–29; Tr. of Oral Arg. 78. Indeed, the Executive Branch has long held that view.

The Office of Legal Counsel has recognized, for instance, that a federal statute generally prohibiting appointments to “‘any office or duty in any court’” of persons within certain degrees of consanguinity to the judges of such courts would, if applied to the President, infringe his power to appoint federal judges, thereby raising a serious constitutional question. 19 Op. OLC, at 350 (quoting 28 U. S. C. §458); see id., at 350–352. So it viewed such a statute as not applying to the President.

Likewise, it has narrowly construed a criminal prohibition on grassroots lobbying to avoid the constitutional issues that would otherwise arise, reasoning that the statute should not “be construed to prohibit the President or executive branch agencies from engaging in a general open dialogue with the public on the Administration’s programs and policies.” Constraints Imposed by 18 U. S. C. §1913 on Lobbying Efforts, 13 Op. OLC 300, 304 (1989); see id., at 304–306.

The Government thus broadly agrees that the President’s official acts are entitled to some degree of constitutional protection. And with respect to the allegations in the indictment before us, the Government agrees that at least some of the alleged conduct involves official acts. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 125; cf. id., at 128.

Yet the Government contends that the President should not be considered immune from prosecution for those official acts. See Brief for United States 9. On the Government’s view, as-applied challenges in the course of the trial suffice to protect Article II interests, and review of a district court’s decisions on such challenges should be deferred until after trial. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 69, 79–80, 154–158. If the President is instead immune from prosecution, a district court’s denial of immunity would be appealable before trial. See Mitchell, 472 U. S., at 524–530 (explaining that questions of immunity are reviewable before trial because the essence of immunity is the entitlement not to be subject to suit).

The Government asserts that the “[r]obust safeguards” available in typical criminal proceedings alleviate the need for pretrial review. Brief for United States 20 (boldface and emphasis omitted). First, it points to the Justice Department’s “longstanding commitment to the impartial enforcement of the law,” id., at 21, as well as the criminal justice system’s further protections: grand juries, a defendant’s procedural rights during trial, and the requirement that the Government prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, id., at 22.

Next, it contends that “existing principles of statutory construction and as-applied constitutional challenges” adequately address the separation of powers concerns involved in applying generally applicable criminal laws to a President. Id., at 29. Finally, the Government cites certain defenses that would be available to the President in a particular prosecution, such as the public-authority defense or the advice of the Attorney General. Id., at 29–30; see Nardone v. United States, 302 U. S. 379, 384 (1937); Tr. of Oral Arg. 107–108.

These safeguards, though important, do not alleviate the need for pretrial review. They fail to address the fact that under our system of separated powers, criminal prohibitions cannot apply to certain Presidential conduct to begin with. As we have explained, when the President acts pursuant to his exclusive constitutional powers, Congress cannot—as a structural matter—regulate such actions, and courts cannot review them. See Part II–A, supra. And he is at least presumptively immune from prosecution for his other official actions. See Part II–B, supra.

Questions about whether the President may be held liable for particular actions, consistent with the separation of powers, must be addressed at the outset of a proceeding. Even if the President were ultimately not found liable for certain official actions, the possibility of an extended proceeding alone may render him “unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties.”

Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 752, n. 32. Vulnerability “‘to the burden of a trial and to the inevitable danger of its outcome, would dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute.’” Id., at 752–753, n. 32 (quoting Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F. 2d 579, 581 (CA2 1949) (Hand, L., C. J.)). The Constitution does not tolerate such impediments to “the effective functioning of government.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 751.

As for the Government’s assurances that prosecutors and grand juries will not permit political or baseless prosecutions from advancing in the first place, those assurances are available to every criminal defendant and fail to account for the President’s “unique position in the constitutional scheme.” Id., at 749. We do not ordinarily decline to decide significant constitutional questions based on the Government’s promises of good faith. See United States v. Stevens, 559 U. S. 460, 480 (2010) (“We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the Government promised to use it responsibly.”). Nor do we do so today.


As for the dissents, they strike a tone of chilling doom that is wholly disproportionate to what the Court actually does today—conclude that immunity extends to official discussions between the President and his Attorney General, and then remand to the lower courts to determine “in the first instance” whether and to what extent Trump’s remaining alleged conduct is entitled to immunity. Supra, at 24, 28, 30.

The principal dissent’s starting premise—that unlike Speech and Debate Clause immunity, no constitutional text supports Presidential immunity, see post, at 4–6 (opinion of SOTOMAYOR, J.)—is one that the Court rejected decades ago as “unpersuasive.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 750, n. 31; see also Nixon, 418 U. S., at 705–706, n. 16 (rejecting unanimously a similar argument in the analogous executive privilege context). “[A] specific textual basis has not been considered a prerequisite to the recognition of immunity.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 750, n. 31. Nor is that premise correct. True, there is no “Presidential immunity clause” in the Constitution.

But there is no “‘separation of powers clause’” either. Seila Law, 591 U. S., at 227. Yet that doctrine is undoubtedly carved into the Constitution’s text by its three articles separating powers and vesting the Executive power solely in the President. See ibid. And the Court’s prior decisions, such as Nixon and Fitzgerald, have long recognized that doctrine as mandating certain Presidential privileges and immunities, even though the Constitution contains no explicit “provision for immunity.” Post, at 4; see Part II–B–1, supra. Neither the dissents nor the Government disavow any of those prior decisions. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 76–77.

The principal dissent then cites the Impeachment Judgment Clause, arguing that it “clearly contemplates that a former President may be subject to criminal prosecution.” Post, at 6. But that Clause does not indicate whether a former President may, consistent with the separation of powers, be prosecuted for his official conduct in particular. See supra, at 32–33. And the assortment of historical sources the principal dissent cites are unhelpful for the same reason. See post, at 6–8.

As the Court has previously noted, relevant historical evidence on the question of Presidential immunity is of a “fragmentary character.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 752, n. 31; see also Clinton, 520 U. S., at 696–697; cf. Youngstown, 343 U. S., at 634 (Jackson, J., concurring) (noting “the poverty of really useful and unambiguous authority applicable to concrete problems of executive power”). “[T]he most compelling arguments,” therefore, “arise from the Constitution’s separation of powers and the Judiciary’s historic understanding of that doctrine.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 752, n. 31.

The Court’s prior admonition is evident in the principal dissent’s citations. Some of its cherry-picked sources do not even discuss the President in particular. See, e.g., post, at 7–8 (citing 2 Debates on the Constitution 177 (J. Elliot ed. 1836); 2 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §780, pp. 250–251 (1833)). And none of them indicate whether he may be prosecuted for his official conduct. See, e.g., post, at 6, 7, n. 2 (citing The Federalist No. 69; 4 Debates on the Constitution, at 109).

The principal dissent’s most compelling piece of evidence consists of excerpted statements of Charles Pinckney from an 1800 Senate debate. See post, at 7. But those statements reflect only the now-discredited argument that any immunity not expressly mentioned in the Constitution must not exist. See 3 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, pp. 384–385 (M. Farrand ed. 1911). And Pinckney is not exactly a reliable authority on the separation of powers: He went on to state on the same day that “it was wrong to give the nomination of Judges to the President”—an opinion expressly rejected by the Framers. Id., at 385.

Given the Framers’ desire for an energetic and vigorous President, the principal dissent’s view that the Constitution they designed allows all his actions to be subject to prosecution—even the exercise of powers it grants exclusively to him—defies credulity.

Unable to muster any meaningful textual or historical support, the principal dissent suggests that there is an “established understanding” that “former Presidents are answerable to the criminal law for their official acts.” Post, at 9. Conspicuously absent is mention of the fact that since the founding, no President has ever faced criminal charges—let alone for his conduct in office. And accordingly no court has ever been faced with the question of a President’s immunity from prosecution. All that our Nation’s practice establishes on the subject is silence.

Coming up short on reasoning, the dissents repeatedly level variations of the accusation that the Court has rendered the President “above the law.” See, e.g., post, at 1, 3, 11, 12, 21, 30 (opinion of SOTOMAYOR, J.); post, at 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 19 (opinion of JACKSON, J.). As before, that “rhetorically chilling” contention is “wholly unjustified.” Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 758, n. 41.

Like everyone else, the President is subject to prosecution in his unofficial capacity. But unlike anyone else, the President is a branch of government, and the Constitution vests in him sweeping powers and duties. Accounting for that reality—and ensuring that the President may exercise those powers forcefully, as the Framers anticipated he would—does not place him above the law; it preserves the basic structure of the Constitution from which that law derives.

The dissents’ positions in the end boil down 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 federal criminal law.” Post, at 18 (opinion of SOTOMAYOR, J.); see post, at 26, 29–30; post, at 8–9, 10, 12, 16, 20–21 (opinion of JACKSON, J.). The dissents overlook the more likely prospect of an Executive Branch that cannibalizes itself, with each successive President free to prosecute his predecessors, yet unable to boldly and fearlessly carry out his duties for fear that he may be next.

For instance, Section 371—which has been charged in this case—is a broadly worded criminal statute that can cover “‘any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of Government.’” United States v. Johnson, 383 U. S. 169, 172 (1966) (quoting Haas v. Henkel, 216 U. S. 462, 479 (1910)). Virtually every President is criticized for insufficiently enforcing some aspect of federal law (such as drug, gun, immigration, or environmental laws). An enterprising prosecutor in a new administration may assert that a previous President violated that broad statute.

Without immunity, such types of prosecutions of ex-Presidents could quickly become routine. The enfeebling of the Presidency and our Government that would result from such a cycle of factional strife is exactly what the Framers intended to avoid. Ignoring those risks, the dissents are instead content to leave the preservation of our system of separated powers up to the good faith of prosecutors.

Finally, the principal dissent finds it “troubling” that the Court does not “designate any course of conduct alleged in the indictment as private.” Post, at 27. Despite the unprecedented nature of this case, the significant constitutional questions that it raises, its expedited treatment in the lower courts and in this Court, the lack of factual analysis in the lower courts, and the lack of briefing on how to categorize the conduct alleged, the principal dissent would go ahead and declare all of it unofficial. The other dissent, meanwhile, analyzes the case under comprehensive models and paradigms of its own concoction and accuses the Court of providing “no meaningful guidance about how to apply [the] new paradigm or how to categorize a President’s conduct.” Post, at 13 (opinion of JACKSON, J.).

It would have us exhaustively define every application of Presidential immunity. See post, at 13–14. Our dissenting colleagues exude an impressive infallibility. While their confidence may be inspiring, the Court adheres to time-tested practices instead—deciding what is required to dispose of this case and remanding after “revers[ing] on a threshold question,” Zivotofsky, 566 U. S., at 201, to obtain “guidance from the litigants [and] the court below,” Vidal v. Elster, 602 U. S. 286, 328 (2024) (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in judgment).

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