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The Supreme Court has rejected a request by the US Department of Justice to fast-track a decision over whether Donald Trump is “absolutely immune” from federal prosecution for crimes allegedly committed while he was in the White House.
The order on Friday afternoon, which was not accompanied by an explanation from the justices, means the criminal case brought against the former president over his alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election will first have to be decided by a lower appeals court.
That could delay a trial scheduled for March in the case brought by Jack Smith, the DoJ special counsel appointed to oversee the federal criminal prosecutions of Trump — although it is unclear by how long.
The decision is a victory for Trump, the clear frontrunner for the Republican party presidential nomination in 2024, as he battles numerous criminal and civil court cases with primaries set to get under way in the coming months ahead of the general election in November.
District judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the election interference case in Washington, earlier this month denied Trump’s motion to dismiss the charges, rejecting his argument that he was immune from prosecution for any actions related to his official duties as president. He subsequently appealed against this decision to an intermediate appeals court, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, and asked that all proceedings related to the case be put on hold pending a final order.
Smith had urged the Supreme Court to take the unusual step of bypassing the DC circuit and grant “immediate review”. A decision by the high court was “the only way” to achieve a “timely and definitive resolution” to the challenge by Trump, he argued in his petition.
Lawyers for Trump had urged the justices to reject that request, arguing that a ruling was among the “most complex, intricate, and momentous issues that this court will be called on to decide” and should therefore not be rushed through the judicial hierarchy at “breakneck speed”.
“In 234 years of American history, no president ever faced criminal prosecution for his official acts. Until 19 days ago, no court had ever addressed whether immunity from such prosecution exists,” they wrote in a brief earlier this week.
The vindication for Trump’s legal team comes ahead of another challenge expected to land before the Supreme Court, involving a decision by the highest court in Colorado to disqualify the former president from the state’s Republican primary ballot.
The Colorado supreme court, which concluded in an unprecedented ruling that Trump was constitutionally banned from running for office for engaging in an insurrection, put its decision on hold until January 4, pending any appeal to the high court in Washington. Trump’s lawyers have vowed to seek review by the Supreme Court.
The DC circuit, meanwhile, is set to hear arguments on the immunity challenge in early January. Its decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, meaning the high court would once again be asked to consider the question.
Trump’s popularity with Republican voters has not been dented by his legal troubles, which include four separate sets of criminal charges. Smith has also charged him with mishandling sensitive government documents, while the state of Georgia has accused him of meddling with the 2020 vote.
The Manhattan district attorney has indicted Trump for an alleged scheme involving “hush money” payments to an adult film actress. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all the cases.