Judges Michelle Childs and Florence Pan, nominated by President Biden to the DC Circuit court of appeals, joined with conservative Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson in a unanimous opinion that affirmed the district court and rejected Donald Trump’s claim that he is absolutely immune from Special Counsel Jack Smith’s criminal indictment for interfering with the results of the 2020 election. In a separate order, the court ruled that the case will go back to Judge Tanya Chutkan to proceed with pre-trial work unless Trump files with the Supreme Court to appeal the case by this Monday, February 12. The February 6, 2024 decision was in US v Trump.
What Is the Background of this Case?
In August, 2023, Special Counsel Jack Smith obtained a criminal indictment in DC charging former President Trump with illegally “challenging the election results” of the 2020 presidential election and “interfering” with the transfer of power. This included his encouragement of the “violent breach” of the Capitol on January 6.
In late August, the trial judge assigned to the case, Tanya Chutkan, set a trial date for March 4, 2024. Trump filed a motion to the dismiss the case claiming he has absolute immunity from criminal prosecution. Judge Chutkan rejected the motion on December 1, and Trump appealed. The pre-trial proceedings were put on hold, and the DC Circuit set an expedited schedule to hear the appeal.
How Did the DC Circuit Panel Rule and Why Is It Important?
Judges Childs and Pan joined with Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson in a unanimous per curiam (for the court) opinion that affirmed Judge Chutkan and completely rejected Trump’s claims of absolute immunity. Importantly, they also issued a separate order stating that the case will be sent back to Judge Chutkan so that pre-trial action can proceed unless Trump appeals to the Supreme Court to stop that from happening while he seeks Court review.
In a 57-page opinion, the court carefully analyzed constitutional text, history, and precedent to reject Trump’s claims and conclude that the criminal case against him as a former President can go forward. The court analyzed and turned down each of Trump’s assertions, including the “torturous” and “irrational” claim that a former President can be criminally prosecuted only if he was first impeached and convicted by the Senate.
More broadly, the court agreed with an 1889 Supreme Court opinion that “no man in this country is so high that he is above the law.” For purposes of this case, they explained, “former President Trump” is now “citizen Trump,” so that any immunity he may have had as President “no longer protects him” from prosecution. The court specifically noted the strong public interest in “accountability” for criminal actions that “interfere” with “upholding a Presidential election” as in this case. If proven, the court went on, Trump’s efforts to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election constitute an “unprecedented assault on the structure of our government.” In conclusion, the court wrote, Trump’s immunity claims are “unsupported by precedent, history, or the text and structure of the Constitution.”
The decision by Judges Childs and Pan, and the unanimity they achieved with conservative Judge Henderson, are obviously critical to achieving accountability for at least some of the reprehensible conduct of Donald Trump. The next step will be up to the Supreme Court, which will likely hear from Trump and Smith sometime next week. In addition, the DC Circuit ruling illustrates the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judges Childs and Pan to our federal courts.