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Determined to Avoid Presidential Paralysis, SCOTUS Endorses Presidential Impunity: We Need Not Conjure 'Extreme Hypotheticals' to Understand the Danger Posed by an 'Energetic Executive' Who Feels Free to Flout the Law

: Jacob Sullum on

Challenging the federal indictment stemming from his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump argued that former presidents can be prosecuted for "official acts" only if they are first impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate based on the same conduct. While rejecting that claim last week, the U.S. Supreme Court left open the possibility that former presidents cannot be prosecuted even then.

Those seemingly contradictory conclusions reflect a ruling with potentially sweeping implications for presidential accountability. Although Justice Amy Coney Barrett maintained in her partial concurrence that the "constitutional protection from prosecution" recognized by the court is "narrow" when "properly conceived," the decision will make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold former presidents criminally liable even for outrageous abuses of power.

Both sides in the case agreed that a former president can be prosecuted for "unofficial acts," a point that Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed in his majority opinion. But Roberts added that a former president is "absolutely immune from criminal prosecution for conduct within his exclusive sphere of constitutional authority."

It is not clear exactly which conduct falls into that "exclusive sphere," although Roberts said conversations in which Trump urged the Justice Department to investigate his bogus claims of systematic election fraud clearly did. Adding to the uncertainty, the majority said even "official acts" outside "the core" of a president's duties merit "at least a presumptive immunity from criminal prosecution," which the government can overcome only if it "can show that applying a criminal prohibition to that act would pose no 'dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.'"

The strictness of that test, combined with the lack of clarity about which acts are "official," suggests that the distinction between "absolute" and "presumptive" immunity is apt to dissolve in practice. And even if it proves meaningful, the court said absolute immunity might ultimately be required for all conduct "within the outer perimeter" of a president's "official responsibility."

Under the majority's reasoning, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned in a dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, a president "will be insulated from criminal prosecution" when he "uses his official powers in any way." That shield, Sotomayor said, would extend to a president who "orders the Navy's Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival," who "organizes a military coup to hold onto power," who "takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon," or who insists that the Justice Department use fabricated evidence in a criminal case.

Instead of explaining why immunity would not apply in such situations, Roberts faulted Sotomayor for "fear mongering on the basis of extreme hypotheticals." He dismissed the threat posed by lawless presidents because he was focused on the supposed need to protect "an energetic executive" from the threat of criminal liability.

As Sotomayor noted, however, presidents have been operating under that threat for a long time. "Every sitting President," she wrote, "has so far believed himself under the threat of criminal liability after his term in office and nevertheless boldly fulfilled the duties of his office."

 

Richard Nixon, who did not suffer from a notable lack of executive energy, evidently shared that longstanding assumption. After he resigned amid the Watergate scandal, Nixon accepted a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, that covered any federal offenses he may have committed as president.

According to the proposed articles of impeachment, those offenses included many acts that would count as "official" in Roberts' book, such as "false or misleading public statements," misuse of the CIA and the IRS, and interference with an FBI investigation. If Nixon was immune from prosecution for those acts, his pardon is a bit of a puzzle.

As that episode illustrates, we need not conjure "extreme hypotheticals" to understand the danger of a president who feels unbound by the law. In the real world, the risk of presidential paralysis pales beside the risk of presidential impunity.

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Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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