How the Supreme Court immunity ruling reshapes presidential power (2024)

In one of the most anticipated rulings of the year, the Supreme Court declared that former President Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for any so-called “official act” taken as president, but not “unofficial ones'' taken as a candidate. Amna Nawaz discussed how the ruling reshapes presidential power with News Hour Supreme Court analyst Marcia Coyle and William Brangham.

Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In one of its most anticipated rulings of the year, the Supreme Court declared that former President Donald Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for any so-called official act taken as president, but not unofficial ones taken as a candidate. The 6-3 ruling was split along ideological lines, and it will most likely delay Trump's federal election subversion trial until after the November election.

    The former president today cheered the ruling, calling it — quote — "a big win for our Constitution and democracy."

    To discuss this historic ruling and how it reshapes presidential power, I'm joined now by "NewsHour" Supreme Court analyst Marcia Coyle and our William Brangham, who's been following the criminal cases against Mr. Trump.

    Great to see you both.

    Marcia, start us off here.

    This was a ruling so many had been waiting for. It was Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote the opinion for the majority here. What's the essence of that ruling?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The chief justice said that — very basically, that certain core presidential powers are absolutely immune from prosecution.

    And those kind of powers would include things like the pardon power, the recognition of foreign nations, the appointment of foreign ambassadors. For all other official acts, the court said there's a presumption of immunity.

    And, as you know, Amna, from criminal law, the presumption of innocence, that presumptions can be rebutted. And, in this case, the court said that the prosecution would have to show that the application of criminal law here into an official act did not interfere with the authority and function of the executive branch.

    So it's a high bar. Mr. Trump did not get everything he asked for, but he got an awful lot. He also — the chief justice also said that not all acts of the president are official acts. There are unofficial acts. And for those unofficial acts, the majority pretty much sent it back to the trial court in Mr. Trump's case and in future cases for judges to sort out in a very fact-intensive review what is official and what is unofficial.

    But here we have in his own words, in the chief justice's own words, what the court's ruling was. The chief justice said: "The president may not be prosecuted for exercising his core constitutional powers. And he is entitled to at least presumptive immunity from prosecution for his official acts."

    Amna, this opinion is really sort of undergirded by concerns for separation of powers and also what the chief justice said was the framers' desire and vision of an energetic and independent executive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Marcia, this was also a clear split along ideological lines. So what was it that liberals argued in the dissent?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The main dissent was from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

    And she pointed out that there was nothing in the text, the history, or even Supreme Court precedent that envisioned, applied, recognized the kind of immunity that the Supreme Court, the majority, was endorsing today.

    She wrote a very impassioned dissent that she read, partially, a summary from the bench. In fact, I think, Amna, it was her most impassioned dissent ever. So, for her, there was nothing that really justified the grant of immunity in this case, and that the criminal justice system that we have would work just fine for the prosecution of a president.

    She said here, in her own words: "When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority's reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold on to power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune, immune, immune, immune."

    I don't think she could have been more direct than that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, William, help us understand the context here. The immunity claim was brought by Donald Trump in response to the federal charges he's facing in the January 6 case. That trial had been on hold pending this ruling. So now that we have this ruling, what does it mean?

  • William Brangham:

    It means that it is all but impossible for a special counsel Jack Smith to bring this case to trial before the November election.

    The court in its ruling today categorically sliced off one part of his indictment, and that was the charges that Smith had brought that Donald Trump, in the aftermath of the election, tried to get his Justice Department to basically affirm his bogus claims that there had been widespread fraud and that the DOJ was investigating that.

    That is now carved out of the indictment. Everything else that has to be determined, as Marcia was just saying, is, the judge, Tanya Chutkan, here in D.C. has to decide what is an official act and what is not an official act. That is pretrial motions. That is hearings. That is going to take up a lot of time before you could even begin a trial that itself was not going to be a short trial.

    We are five months from the election. There just seems to be no way that that's going to happen in time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should also point out this doesn't just apply to former President Trump. It also now applies to President Biden, to any future president who follows him into the Oval Office.

    What does it mean for the scope of presidential powers moving forward?

  • William Brangham:

    This was something that was picked up by — in the dissent today.

    Justice Sotomayor said that the majority has left this shield laying around for any president to pick up. If that president wanted to act criminally or undemocratically while in office, they have this sort of cloak of immunity, this veil that they can put on over themselves.

    We talked earlier today with Steve Vladeck. He's a SCOTUS, Supreme Court, scholar at Georgetown University. And he said that this ruling quite significantly tilts power away from Congress towards the president, away from judges towards the president. He also said this:

  • Stephen Vladeck, Georgetown University Law Center:

    Most importantly, it tilts the power away from we the people because we all of a sudden become left only to the impeachment process and all of the warts that we have seen in recent years with that for accountability for misdoing by presidents,a process that is weak enough on its own and hard to imagine being especially effective in a late second term of a presidency, just as we saw how ineffective it was late in President Trump's first term.

  • William Brangham:

    Justice Neil Gorsuch, during oral arguments for this, acknowledged that in this case they would be writing — quote — "a rule for the ages." And that is absolutely true.

    This applies decades forward. And a lot more power has now been given to the president of the United States. And that will be that way for decades to come.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, Marcia, while we have you, there were other rulings that came out of the Supreme Court today, notably one that dealt with state laws governing social media companies and moderating content.

    How did the court handle those cases out of Florida and Texas?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    These two laws were really prompted by concerns that the social media platforms were censoring conservative thought. And the Supreme Court today did not get to the merits of the arguments. I guess you could say they punted. They decided that the lower courts did not apply the proper First Amendment analysis, so they sent the cases back to the two federal circuit courts of appeals to do just that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's been a term of enormous consequence.

    Thank you so much to Marcia Coyle, William Brangham for helping us understand it all.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Always a pleasure, Amna.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks.

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