The Supreme Court's decision Friday not to expedite consideration of former President Donald J. Trump's claim that he is immune from prosecution on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election was clearly a victory for Trump and his lawyers.
The judges' decision not to address the issue now, handed down without explanation, gave a boost to the former president's legal strategy of delaying the proceedings as much as possible in the hope that time would run out before Election Day.
However, it is not clear that the decision contains any clues about what the Supreme Court might think about the merits of his immunity claim. And the extent to which this delays Trump's trial will only be determined in the coming weeks, as the clash over whether he can be prosecuted plays out in the federal appeals court in Washington, and then perhaps returns to the justices.
How the Supreme Court handles the case at that point could still have profound implications, both for whether the charge of federal election interference will stand and for whether Trump could succeed in pushing a trial beyond the election, when, if wins the presidency, he could order the charges to be dropped.
Here's a look at what's to come.
What issue is Mr. Trump appealing?
Trump is trying to get the entire charge against him dismissed with an argument that has never before been tested in court, largely because no one else has done it this way. He claims that he is absolutely immune from criminal prosecution on election interference charges because they stem from acts he performed while in the White House.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is handling the underlying case in U.S. District Court in Washington, rejected that claim earlier this month in a decision that found there was nothing in the Constitution or American history to support the idea of that the holder of the nation's highest office, once out of office, should not be subject to federal criminal law like everyone else.
Trump appealed the decision to the first court higher than Judge Chutkan: the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
But fearing that a protracted appeal could delay the case's trial as scheduled in March, Jack Smith, the special prosecutor who brought the indictment, made an unusual request of the Supreme Court: He asked the justices to get ahead of the appeals. court and consider the case first to expedite the process and preserve the current trial date.
On Friday, in a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court rejected Mr. Smith's request.
Where will the case be heard now?
The Washington appeals court will hear the immunity issue. In fact, the court will do so on an extremely accelerated schedule by judicial standards.
A three-judge panel of the court, made up of one judge appointed by President George HW Bush and two appointed by President Biden, ordered that all briefs in the case be delivered by January 2. for oral arguments on January 9.
In a sign of how quickly the panel is moving, the justices told Trump's lawyers to deliver their first round of court papers on Saturday, two days before Christmas. Mr. Smith's team was ordered to file its own documents the following Saturday, the day before New Year's Eve.
What happens after the appeals court rules?
If the appeals court rules in Trump's favor, Smith's office will almost certainly challenge the loss before the Supreme Court, assuming the justices agree to hear it.
But the most likely scenario is that all three appeals judges rule against Trump, rejecting his claims for immunity.
At that point, he could try to have the entire circuit court hear the appeal, a move that would, at the very least, consume more time. If the full court refused to take the case or ruled against him, he would likely ask the Supreme Court to intervene a second time.
What happens if he goes back to the Supreme Court?
In theory, the Supreme Court could decline to address the immunity issue if Trump loses and simply let the appeals court ruling stand. That option could be attractive to the justices if they want to avoid wading directly into a highly charged political issue, just one of several they are likely to face in the coming months that could hurt Trump's chances of winning back the White House.
If that happened, the case would return to Judge Chutkan and she would set a new trial date. Her handling of her case so far suggests she would move quickly through the process.
However, if the Supreme Court were to take up the case, the justices would have to make another critical decision: how quickly to hear it. They may be able to consider the case quickly and rule on the immunity issue before the end of his current term, or even much sooner, in June.
But Mr. Smith has expressed concern in court filings that the justices may not be able to complete their work before the end of this term. If they don't, the case would drag on into the next term, which won't begin until October, too late to resolve before Election Day.
What does all this mean for the start of the trial?
If the appeals court issues a quick decision against Trump and the Supreme Court lets that decision stand, the trial could be delayed, but perhaps only by a few weeks. In this scenario, it is conceivable that the case could come before a jury in April or May, well before the start of the campaign season.
If the Supreme Court takes the case and sees it on an accelerated schedule, the trial could be delayed a little longer, perhaps a matter of months. That would mean a trial could be held over the summer, a complicated prospect given that the Republican nominating convention is in July and that Trump, assuming he is the party's nominee, could be prevented from doing much of the traditional campaigning while the election lasts. rehearsal.
But if the Supreme Court takes the case and considers it calmly, there may not be any trial before the November general election. In that case, voters would not have the opportunity to hear the evidence in the case against Trump before making their decision, and a President Trump could choose to ensure that they do not have the opportunity after the election either.
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