Judge in Trump election case pauses court deadlines as appeal is heard on presidential immunity

A ruling in Trump’s favor would presumably derail the case and a protracted appeal could delay a trial well beyond its scheduled start date of March 4

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump rallies with supporters at a 'commit to caucus' event at a Whiskey bar in Ankeny, Iowa. December 2, 2023.CARLOS BARRIA (REUTERS)

Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case in Washington will be put on hold while the former president further pursues his claims that he is immune from prosecution, the judge overseeing the case ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed to pause any “further proceedings that would move this case towards trial or impose additional burdens of litigation on Defendant.” But the judge said that if the case returns to her court, she will “consider at that time whether to retain or continue the dates of any still-future deadlines and proceedings, including the trial scheduled for March 4, 2024.”

At issue is an appeal last week by Trump’s lawyers of an order from Chutkan denying their claims that the case must be dismissed on immunity grounds. Special counsel Jack Smith’s team has also asked the Supreme Court to take up the legally untested question.

Lawyers for Donald Trump told a federal appeals court on Wednesday that it should not speed up its consideration of whether the former president is immune from prosecution as they accused federal prosecutors of trying to rush his 2020 election subversion case through before next year’s presidential election.

“The prosecution has one goal in this case: To unlawfully attempt to try, convict, and sentence President Trump before an election in which he is likely to defeat President Biden,” defense lawyers wrote Wednesday. “This represents a blatant attempt to interfere with the 2024 presidential election and to disenfranchise the tens of millions of voters who support President Trump’s candidacy.”

The issue is of paramount significance to both sides given that a ruling in Trump’s favor would presumably derail the case and because a protracted appeal could delay a trial well beyond its currently scheduled start date of March 4. Trump faces charges he plotted to overturn the 2020 election after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden, and he has denied doing anything wrong.

Special counsel Jack Smith, whose team has brought two federal cases against Trump in Washington and in Florida, has sought to keep both on track while Trump has attempted to delay the proceedings — at one point even asking for the Washington prosecution to be pushed back until 2026.

A separate potential hiccup for the prosecution developed Wednesday when the Supreme Court said that it would review a charge of obstruction of an official proceeding that the Justice Department has brought against more than 300 participants in the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. That’s among four counts brought against Trump by Smith, meaning that a high court ruling that benefits the defendants in the riot

A postponement until after the election would clearly benefit Trump, especially since, if elected president, he would have the authority to try and order the Justice Department to dismiss the federal cases.

In telling the Washington-based federal appeals court that there was no reason for it to fast-track the immunity question, Trump’s lawyers wrote that the “date of March 4, 2024, has no talismanic significance.

“Aside from the prosecution’s unlawful partisan motives, there is no compelling reason that date must be maintained, especially at the expense of President Trump and the public’s overriding interest in ensuring these matters of extraordinary constitutional significance are decided appropriately, with full and thoughtful consideration to all relevant authorities and arguments,” they wrote.

At issue is an appeal by the Trump team, filed last week, of a trial judge’s rejection of arguments that he was protected from prosecution for actions he took as president. Smith sought to short-circuit that process by asking the Supreme Court on Monday to take up the issue during its current term, a request he acknowledged was “extraordinary” but one he said he was essential to keep the case moving forward.

Smith’s team simultaneously asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to expedite its consideration of Trump’s appeal, writing: “The public has a strong interest in this case proceeding to trial in a timely manner. The trial cannot proceed, however, before resolution of the defendant’s interlocutory appeal.”

The Trump team made clear its opposition to that request, saying the case presents “novel, complex, and sensitive questions of profound importance.”

“Whether a President of the United States may be criminally prosecuted for his official acts as President goes to the core of our system of separated powers and will stand among the most consequential questions ever decided by this Court,” they wrote. “The manifest public interest lies in the Court’s careful and deliberate consideration of these momentous issues with the utmost care and diligence.”

In addition, the attorneys wrote, keeping the current schedule intact would require attorneys and support staff to work round-the-clock through the holidays, inevitably disrupting family and travel plans.

“It is as if the Special Counsel growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming, ‘I must find some way to keep Christmas from coming. … But how?’” the lawyers wrote, referring to the fictional character created by the children’s author Dr. Seuss.

The Supreme Court has indicated that it would decide quickly whether to hear the case, ordering Trump’s lawyers to respond by Dec. 20. The court’s brief order did not signal what it ultimately would do.

A Supreme Court case usually lasts several months, from the time the justices agree to hear it until a final decision. Smith is asking the court to move with unusual, but not unprecedented, speed.

Nearly 50 years ago, the justices acted within two months of being asked to force President Richard Nixon to turn over Oval Office recordings in the Watergate scandal. The tapes were then used later in 1974 in the corruption prosecutions of Nixon’s former aides.

It took the high court just a few days to effectively decide the 2000 presidential election for Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

If the justices decline to step in at this point, Trump’s appeal would continue at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Smith said even a rapid appellate decision might not get to the Supreme Court in time for review and final word before the court’s traditional summer break.

Trump faces four criminal prosecutions in four different cities. He is charged in Florida with illegally retaining classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and faces a state prosecution in Georgia that accuse him of trying to subvert that state’s 2020 presidential election and a New York case that accuses him of falsifying business records in connection with a hush money payment to a porn actress.

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