Supreme court to hear Trump immunity claim in election interference case

<span>Trump has made it no secret that his overarching legal strategy is to seek delays, ideally beyond the 2024 election in November.</span><span>Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP</span>
Trump has made it no secret that his overarching legal strategy is to seek delays, ideally beyond the 2024 election in November.Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

The US supreme court agreed on Wednesday to take up the unprecedented claim that Donald Trump has absolute immunity from prosecution in the criminal case over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, throwing into jeopardy whether it goes to trial before the 2024 election.

The justices set oral arguments for the week of 22 April to consider a recent ruling by a three-judge panel at the US court of appeals for the DC circuit, which categorically rejected Trump’s immunity claim in a decision earlier this month.

Related: Supreme court will decide Trump immunity claim in 2020 election case – as it happened

Trump’s criminal case will remain on hold until the supreme court ultimately rules on the matter, inserting it into the politically charged position of potentially influencing whether Trump will go to trial before the presidential election in November.

The unsigned order said the court intended to address at oral arguments “whether and if so to what extent does a former president enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office”.

In the federal 2020 election case, Trump faces a four-count indictment in Washington DC brought by the special counsel, Jack Smith, that charges him with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct the congressional certification of the election results, and violating rights.

Trump sought to have the charges dismissed last year, arguing in a 52-page filing that the conduct he was charged with fell under the so-called “outer perimeter” of his official duties, which meant he could not be prosecuted because of the broad protections afforded to the presidency.

The motion to dismiss contended that all of Trump’s attempts to reverse his 2020 election defeat detailed in the indictment, from pressuring his vice-president, Mike Pence, to stop the congressional certification of Biden’s victory to organizing fake slates of electors, were in his capacity as president and therefore protected.

At the heart of the Trump legal team’s filing was the extraordinary contention that not only was Trump entitled to absolute presidential immunity, but that the immunity applied regardless of Trump’s intent in engaging in the conduct described in the indictment.

The arguments were rejected by the presiding US district judge Tanya Chutkan, and subsequently by the three-judge panel at the DC circuit, which wrote in an unsigned but unanimous decision that they could not endorse such an interpretation of executive power.

“At bottom, former President Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches,” the opinion said. “We cannot accept that the office of the Presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”

Trump’s lawyers settled on advancing the immunity claim last October in large part because it is what is known as an interlocutory appeal – an appeal that can be litigated pre-trial – and one that crucially put the case on hold while it was resolved.

Putting the case on hold was important because Trump’s overarching strategy has been to seek delay, ideally even beyond the election, in the hopes that winning a second presidency could enable him to pardon himself or allow him to install a loyal attorney general who would drop the charges.

The involvement of the supreme court now means the case continues to remain frozen until the justices issue a ruling. And even if the court rules against Trump, the case may not be ready for trial until late into the summer or beyond.

The reason that Trump will not go to trial as soon as the supreme court rules is because Trump is technically entitled to the “defense preparation time” that he had remaining when he filed his first appeal to the DC circuit on 8 December 2023, which triggered the stay.

Trump has 87 days remaining from that period, calculated by finding the difference between the original 4 March trial date and 8 December. The earliest that Trump could go to trial in Washington, as a result, is by adding 87 days to the date of the supreme court’s final decision.

With oral arguments set for April, a ruling might not be handed down until May. Alternatively, in the worst case scenario for the special counsel, the supreme court could wait until the end of its current term in July, which could mean the trial might be delayed until late September at the earliest.