A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected former President Donald J. Trump's claim that he was immune to charges of plotting to subvert the results of the 2020 election, ruling that he must go to trial on a criminal indictment accusing him of seeking to overturn his loss to President Biden.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed Mr. Trump a significant defeat, but was unlikely to be the final word on his claims of executive immunity. Mr. Trump, who is on a path to locking up the Republican presidential nomination, is expected to continue his appeal to the Supreme Court.
Still, the panel's 57-page ruling signaled an important moment in American jurisprudence, answering a question that had never been addressed by an appeals court: Can former presidents escape being held accountable by the criminal justice system for things they did while in office?
The question is novel because no former president until Mr. Trump had been indicted, so there was never an opportunity for a defendant to make — and courts to consider — the sweeping claim of executive immunity that he put forward.
The panel, composed of two judges appointed by Democrats and one Republican appointee, said in its decision that, despite the privileges of the office he once held, Mr. Trump was subject to federal criminal law like any other American.
Takeaways From Trump's Indictment in the 2020 Election Inquiry
Four charges for the former president. Former President Donald Trump was charged with four counts in connection with his widespread efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The indictment was filed by the special counsel Jack Smith in Federal District Court in Washington. Here are some key takeaways:
The indictment portrayed an attack on American democracy. Smith framed his case against Trump as one that cuts to a key function of democracy: the peaceful transfer of power. By underscoring this theme, Smith cast his effort as an effort not just to hold Trump accountable but also to defend the very core of democracy.
Trump was placed at the center of the conspiracy charges. Smith put Trump at the heart of three conspiracies that culminated on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to obstruct Congress's role in ratifying the Electoral College outcome. The special counsel argued that Trump knew that his claims about a stolen election were false, a point that, if proved, could be important to convincing a jury to convict him.
Trump didn't do it alone. The indictment lists six co-conspirators without naming or indicting them. Based on the descriptions provided, they match the profiles of Trump lawyers and advisers who were willing to argue increasingly outlandish conspiracy and legal theories to keep him in power. It's unclear whether these co-conspirators will be indicted.
Trump's political power remains strong. Trump may be on trial in 2024 in three or four separate criminal cases, but so far the indictments appear not to have affected his standing with Republican voters. By a large margin, he remains his party's front-runner in the presidential primaries.
"For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant," the panel wrote. "But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution."
A spokesman for Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the case against Mr. Trump, declined to comment on the decision.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump's campaign, said the former president "respectfully disagrees" the court's decision and would appeal it.
"If immunity is not granted to a president, every future president who leaves office will be immediately indicted by the opposing party," Mr. Cheung said. "Without complete immunity, a president of the United States would not be able to properly function."
The panel's ruling came nearly a month after it heard arguments on the immunity issue from Mr. Trump's legal team and from prosecutors working for Mr. Smith. While the decision was quick by the standards of a normal appeal, what happens next will be arguably more important in determining not only when a trial on the election subversion charges will take place, but also on the timing of Mr. Trump's three other criminal trials.
In addition to the federal indictment charging him with seeking to overturn his election loss in 2020, he faces similar charges brought by a district attorney in Georgia. Mr. Smith, the special counsel appointed to oversee the federal prosecutions, has also brought a case in Florida accusing Mr. Trump of mishandling highly sensitive classified documents after leaving office and obstructing efforts to retrieve them. And in Manhattan, Mr. Trump faces trial on charges related to hush-money payments to a porn star during the 2016 campaign.
The scheduling of the three other trials depends in part on the timing of the federal election case.
In a significant part of their decision about presidential immunity, the three appellate judges circumscribed Mr. Trump's ability to use further appeals to waste more time and delay the election case from going to trial — a strategy the former president has pursued since the indictment against him was filed in August in Federal District Court in Washington.
The panel said, for instance, that if Mr. Trump's appeals its decision to the Supreme Court, the underlying case, which was put on hold by the trial judge in December, would remain suspended until the justices decided to the hear case themselves and issued their own order freezing the proceedings.
But the panel imposed a rule designed to discourage Mr. Trump from making an intermediate challenge to the full court of appeals. It said that if Mr. Trump took that route, the underlying case would not remain on hold as the full court mulled whether to to hear the case and issued its own order pausing it.
If the question does reach the Supreme Court, the justices will first have to decide whether to accept the case or to reject it and allow the appeals court's ruling against Mr. Trump to stand. If they decline to hear the issue, the case will be sent directly back to the trial judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, who scrapped her initial March 4 date for the trial last week, but has otherwise shown every sign of wanting to move the charges toward trial as quickly as possible.
If, however, the Supreme Court does accept the case, the crucial question will become how quickly the justices act in asking for briefs and in scheduling arguments. Should they move rapidly to hear the case and issue a decision, there remains the chance that a trial on the election charges will occur before the general election in November.
But if the justices take their time, it is possible a trial could be put off until after the election. And were that to happen and Mr. Trump were to win, he would be in a position to ask his Justice Department to dismiss the case or even seek to pardon himself.
Even though Mr. Trump put three of the justices on the bench, the Supreme Court has not shown much of an appetite for wading into issues related to his efforts to tinker with the mechanics of American democracy.
But the court could end up considering the Mr. Trump's immunity challenge and on Thursday is scheduled to hear arguments about another momentous question related to the former president: whether he can be disqualified from the ballot for having engaged in an act of insurrection by encouraging his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence for The Times, focusing on the criminal cases involving the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and against former President Donald J. Trump.