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The US Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in for the first time on Donald Trump’s legal protections, in a petition that seeks a ruling on whether a former president is “absolutely immune” from federal prosecution for crimes committed while in office.
Jack Smith, the US special counsel overseeing federal criminal prosecutions of Trump, on Monday urged the Supreme Court to grant “immediate review” in order for the case to be decided during its current term, which usually ends in June or early July. That would ensure a resolution months before the presidential election in November 2024. Trump remains the favourite to become the Republican nominee.
The high court later on Monday granted the request to fast-track consideration of the petition and directed Trump to file a response by December 20.
“This case presents a fundamental question at the heart of our democracy,” Smith wrote in the brief. Trump’s claims of presidential immunity are “profoundly mistaken” and “only this court can definitively resolve them”, he added.
The petition puts an issue at the heart of the multiple cases against Trump before the US’s highest court, in an effort to determine whether he can be shielded from prosecution for his actions while in office. Trump has argued that he can, in seeking to dismiss a federal indictment charging him with trying to interfere with the results of the 2020 election.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the election interference case, earlier this month rejected Trump’s motion to dismiss. He subsequently appealed against this decision and asked that all proceedings related to the case be put on hold pending a final order.
Smith urged the Supreme Court to take the unusual step of hearing the case immediately. “Nothing could be more vital to our democracy than . . . a president who abuses the electoral system to remain in office is held accountable for criminal conduct,” he wrote in Monday’s petition. “Yet [Trump] has asserted that the Constitution accords him absolute immunity from prosecution. The Constitution’s text, structure, and history lend no support to that novel claim.”
“A cornerstone of our constitutional order is that no person is above the law,” he added.
The election interference trial is scheduled to begin on March 4, but Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly argued to delay it until after the 2024 presidential vote. He has pleaded not guilty.
A Trump spokesperson said in response to the filing that Smith was “so obsessed with interfering in the 2024 Presidential Election, with the goal of preventing President Trump from retaking the Oval Office, as the President is poised to do, that (he) is willing to try for a Hail Mary by racing to the Supreme Court and attempting to bypass the appellate process.”
“As President Trump has said over and over again, this prosecution is completely politically motivated,” the spokesperson added.
In his briefing, Smith said it was “of imperative public importance” that Trump’s immunity claims be resolved by the Supreme Court and that the “trial proceed as promptly as possible if his claim of immunity is rejected”.
Trump is facing four separate sets of criminal charges. Smith has also charged Trump with mishandling sensitive government documents, while the state of Georgia has also accused him of meddling with the 2020 vote. The Manhattan district attorney has indicted him for an alleged scheme involving “hush money” payments to an adult film actress. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all cases.