How Trump v United States Will Affect the Country Moving Forward

4 Jul 2024

Trump v. United States Court Filing, retrieved on July 1, 2024, is part of HackerNoon’s Legal PDF Series. You can jump to any part in this filing here. This part is 20 of 21.


JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR has already warned of the dire consequences that are likely to follow from the majority’s decision in this case. Ante, at 29–30 (dissenting opinion). I have thus far endeavored merely to explain what today’s ruling amounts to on a theoretical level: the Court’s abandonment of the individual accountability model as applied to Presidents, and its introduction of a new Presidential accountability model that authorizes the Judiciary to exempt Presidents from punishment under law, depending on the official or unofficial character of the criminal conduct at issue.

Here, I will highlight just two observations about the results that follow from this paradigm shift. First, by changing the accountability paradigm in this fashion, the Court has unilaterally altered the balance of power between the three coordinate branches of our Government as it relates to the Rule of Law, aggrandizing power in the Judiciary and the Executive, to the detriment of Congress. Second, the majority’s new Presidential accountability model undermines the constraints of the law as a deterrent for future Presidents who might otherwise abuse their power, to the detriment of us all.


Consider the structural implications of today’s decision from the standpoint of the separation of powers. Until now, Congress’s laws, passed by the representatives of the People, bound the People and their elected officials just the same. Law, we have explained, “is the only supreme power in our system of government, and every man who by accepting office participates in its functions is only the more strongly bound to submit to that supremacy, and to observe the limitations which it imposes upon the exercise of the authority which it gives.” Lee, 106 U. S., at 220.

With its adoption of a paradigm that sometimes exempts the President from the dictates of the law (when the Court says so), this Court has effectively snatched from the Legislature the authority to bind the President (or not) to Congress’s mandates, and it has also thereby substantially augmented the power of both the Office of the Presidency and itself.

As to the former, it should go without saying that the Office of the Presidency, the apex of the Executive Branch, is made significantly more powerful when the constraints of the criminal law are lifted with respect to the exercise of a President’s official duties. After today’s ruling, the President must still “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” Art. II, §3; yet, when acting in his official capacity, he has no obligation to follow those same laws himself.

But whatever additional power the majority’s new Presidential accountability model gives to the Presidency, it gives doubly to the Court itself, for the majority provides no meaningful guidance about how to apply this new paradigm or how to categorize a President’s conduct. For instance, its opinion lists some examples of the “core” constitutional powers with respect to which the President is now entitled to absolute immunity—a list that apparently includes the removal power, the power to recognize foreign nations, and the pardon power.

Ante, at 6–9. However, the majority does not—and likely cannot—supply any useful or administrable definition of the scope of that “core.” For what it’s worth, the Constitution’s text is no help either; Article II does not contain a Core Powers Clause.[6] So the actual metes and bounds of the “core” Presidential powers are really anyone’s guess.

Nor does the majority explain how to consistently distinguish between official and unofficial acts. Quite the opposite, in fact. While acknowledging that this is a critical line that courts must draw in order for its new accountability model to work properly, the majority simultaneously cautions that making this distinction “can be difficult”—likely a gross understatement given the recognized “breadth of the President’s ‘discretionary responsibilities’ under the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Ante, at 17.

The majority likewise provides no guidance as to when, how, or why the President’s “presumptive” immunity for noncore official acts might be rebutted, saying only that applying the criminal law to a President’s acts must pose “no ‘dangers of intrusion on the authority and functions of the Executive Branch.’” Ante, at 14 (quoting Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 731, 754 (1982)).

At most, to distinguish official from unofficial conduct, the majority advises asking whether the former President’s conduct was “‘manifestly or palpably beyond [his] authority.’” Ante, at 17 (quoting Blassingame v. Trump, 87 F. 4th 1, 13 (CADC 2023)). But that test can be illusory, as is evidenced by the facts alleged in this very case. With respect to the indictment’s allegations concerning petitioner’s attempt to assemble false slates of electors in conjunction with the events of January 6, 2021, for example, the majority admits that the “alleged conduct cannot be neatly categorized,” and that “[t]he analysis therefore . . . may prove to be challenging.” Ante, at 28–29. With that, at least, I could not agree more.

This much is clear: Before today, none of these kinds of inquiries was necessary for criminal liability to be fairly assessed with respect to persons accused of having engaged in criminal conduct. And, frankly, none is needed now—except as relates to the President under the new paradigm the majority has crafted.

Perhaps even more troubling, while Congress (the branch of our Government most accountable to the People) is the entity our Constitution tasks with deciding, as a general matter, what conduct is on or off limits, the Court has now arrogated that power unto itself when that question pertains to the President. In essence, the Court has now imposed its own preclearance requirement on the application of Congress’s laws to a former President alleged to have committed crimes while in office.

Who will be responsible for drawing the crucial “‘line between [the President’s] personal and official affairs’”? Ante, at 29. To ask the question is to know the answer. A majority of this Court, applying an indeterminate test, will pick and choose which laws apply to which Presidents, by labeling his various allegedly criminal acts as “core,” “official,” or “manifestly or palpably” beyond the President’s authority.

Ironically, then, while purportedly seeking to transcend politics, see ante, at 41–42, the Court today displaces the independent judgments of the political branches about the circumstances under which the criminal law should apply. Effectively, the Court elbows out of the way both Congress and prosecutorial authorities within the Executive Branch, making itself the indispensable player in all future attempts to hold former Presidents accountable to generally applicable criminal laws.

“The Framers, however, did not make the judiciary the overseer of our government.” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579, 594 (1952) (Frankfurter, J., concurring). To be sure, this Court may sometimes “have to intervene in determining where authority lies as between the democratic forces in our scheme of government.” Id., at 597. But it has long been understood that “we should be wary and humble” when doing so. Ibid.

The majority displays no such caution or humility now. Instead, the Court today transfers from the political branches to itself the power to decide when the President can be held accountable. What is left in its wake is a greatly weakened Congress, which must stand idly by as the President disregards its criminal prohibitions and uses the powers of his office to push the envelope, while choosing to follow (or not) existing laws, as he sees fit. We also now have a greatly empowered Court, which can opt to allow Congress’s policy judgments criminalizing conduct to stand (or not) with respect to a former President, as a matter of its own prerogative.


If the structural consequences of today’s paradigm shift mark a step in the wrong direction, then the practical consequences are a five-alarm fire that threatens to consume democratic self-governance and the normal operations of our Government. The majority shoos away this possibility. Ante, at 37 (accusing the dissents of “strik[ing] a tone of chilling doom that is wholly disproportionate to what the Court actually does today”). But JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR makes this point plain, see ante, at 29–30, and I will not belabor it.

Here, I will merely observe that, from a theoretical perspective, philosophers have long considered deterrence to be a key justification for adopting and maintaining systems that ensure accountability for criminal conduct.[7] For that same reason, some commentators also maintain that decreasing the certainty of accountability for wrongful acts at least arguably reduces incentives to follow the law.[8]

Under the individual accountability model, because everyone is subject to the law, the potential of criminal liability operates as a constraint on the actions and decisions of everyone, including the President. After today, that reality is no more. Consequently, our Nation has lost a substantial check on Presidents who would use their official powers to commit crimes with impunity while in office.

So, one might ask, what remains of accountability for Presidents under law? With today’s paradigm shift, the majority leaves in place only the chance that this Court might someday determine that the criminal conduct in question was an “unofficial” act, or that the Government will somehow rebut the presumption of immunity that applies to a President’s official acts, such that criminal consequences might attach. But with the parameters of official and unofficial conduct unknown, I think it highly unlikely that a sitting President would feel constrained by these remote possibilities.

All of this leads me to ponder why, exactly, has the majority concluded that an indeterminate “core”-versus-“official”-versus-“unofficial” line-drawing exercise is the better way to address potential criminal acts of a President? Could it be that the majority believes the obviously grave dangers of shifting from the individual accountability model to the Presidential accountability model might nevertheless be offset by the great benefits of doing so? Cf. J. Bentham, A Fragment on Government and an Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 3 (W. Harrison ed. 1948) (arguing that acts can be justified by the maxim that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (emphasis deleted)).

Some of the majority’s analysis suggests as much. As far as I can tell, the majority is mostly concerned that, without immunity, Presidents might “be chilled from taking the ‘bold and unhesitating action’ required of an independent Executive.” Ante, at 13. The Court’s opinion candidly laments that application of the law to Presidents might not be evenhanded, and that, as a result, Presidents might be less “‘vigorous’ and ‘energetic’” as executive officers. Ante, at 10; accord, ante, at 39. But that concern ignores (or rejects) the foundational principles upon which the traditional individual accountability paradigm is based.

Worse still, promoting more vigor from Presidents in exercising their official duties—and, presumably, less deliberation— invites breathtaking risks in terms of harm to the American people that, in my view, far outweigh the benefits.

This is not to say that the majority is wrong when it perceives that it can be cumbersome for a President to have to follow the law while carrying out his duty to enforce it. It is certainly true that “[a] scheme of government like ours no doubt at times feels the lack of power to act with complete, all-embracing, swiftly moving authority.” Youngstown, 343 U. S., at 613 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). But any American who has studied history knows that “our government was designed to have such restrictions.” Ibid. (emphasis added). Our Constitution’s “separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787, not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but . . . to save the people from autocracy.” Myers v. United States, 272 U. S. 52, 293 (1926) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

Having now cast the shadow of doubt over when—if ever—a former President will be subject to criminal liability for any criminal conduct he engages in while on duty, the majority incentivizes all future Presidents to cross the line of criminality while in office, knowing that unless they act “manifestly or palpably beyond [their] authority,” ante, at 17, they will be presumed above prosecution and punishment alike.

But the majority also tells us not to worry, because “[l]ike everyone else, the President is subject to prosecution in his unofficial capacity.” Ante, at 40 (emphasis added). This attempted reassurance is cold comfort, even setting aside the fact that the Court has neglected to lay out a standard that reliably distinguishes between a President’s official and unofficial conduct. Why? Because there is still manifest inequity: Presidents alone are now free to commit crimes when they are on the job, while all other Americans must follow the law in all aspects of their lives, whether personal or professional.

The official-versus-unofficial act distinction also seems both arbitrary and irrational, for it suggests that the unofficial criminal acts of a President are the only ones worthy of prosecution. Quite to the contrary, it is when the President commits crimes using his unparalleled official powers that the risks of abuse and autocracy will be most dire. So, the fact that, “unlike anyone else, the President is” vested with “sweeping powers and duties,” ibid., actually underscores, rather than undermines, the grim stakes of setting the criminal law to the side when the President flexes those very powers.

The vision John Adams enshrined in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights—“‘a government of laws and not of men’”—speaks directly to this concept. Mine Workers, 330 U. S., at 307 (Frankfurter, J., concurring in judgment). Adams characterized that document as an homage to the Rule of Law; it reflected both a flat “rejection in positive terms of rule by fiat” and a solemn promise that “[e]very act of government may be challenged by an appeal to law.” Id., at 308.

Thanks to the majority, that vision and promise are likely to be fleeting in the future. From this day forward, Presidents of tomorrow will be free to exercise the Commander-in-Chief powers, the foreign-affairs powers, and all the vast law enforcement powers enshrined in Article II however they please—including in ways that Congress has deemed criminal and that have potentially grave consequences for the rights and liberties of Americans.

Continue Reading Here.

About HackerNoon Legal PDF Series: We bring you the most important technical and insightful public domain court case filings.

This court case retrieved on July 1, 2024, is part of the public domain. The court-created documents are works of the federal government, and under copyright law, are automatically placed in the public domain and may be shared without legal restriction.

[6] Some of the powers the majority designates as “core” powers are, at best, implied from indefinite constitutional language. See, e.g., Seila Law, 591 U. S., at 268–269 (KAGAN, J., concurring in judgment with respect to severability and dissenting in part) (“Nowhere does the text say anything about the President’s power to remove subordinate officials at will”); Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 576 U. S. 1, 11 (2015) (“[T]he Constitution does not use the term ‘recognition,’ either in Article II or elsewhere”); id., at 63 (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting) (calling the “asserted textual bases” for an exclusive Presidential recognition power “tenuous”).

[7] See, e.g., Plato, Laws 274 (B. Jowett transl. 2000) (“Not that he is punished because he did wrong, for that which is done can never be undone, but in order that in future times, he, and those who see him corrected, may utterly hate injustice, or at any rate abate much of their evildoing”); see also J. Bentham, The Rationale of Punishment 20 (1830) (“General prevention ought to be the chief end of punishment, as it is its real justification”); A. von Hirsch, Doing Justice: The Choice of Punishments 44 (1976) (“The threat and imposition of punishment is called for in order to secure compliance—not full compliance, but more compliance than there might be were there no legal penalties at all”).

[8] See, e.g., M. Ryan, Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing, 81 Brooklyn L. Rev. 149, 156, and n. 37 (2015) (“[U]ndermining the . . . certainty of punishment . . . could undermine the deterrence value of punishment”).