Presidents have immunity for official acts: Is SCOTUS right?

Chris Szagola/ AP

Fact Box

  • On July 1, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case that former presidents have “broad immunity” for official acts, which removed former President Trump from facing trial for the 2020 election case during the 2024 election. 
  • In the 6-3 ruling, conservative justices were in the majority, while the three liberal members were dissenters. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “presidential power requires [...] some immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts during his tenure in office.” President Biden asserted the ruling was a “dangerous precedent” referencing kings and dictatorship. 
  • A June 2024 CBS News and YouGov poll found that 62% of Americans believe President Trump should not have immunity from his actions during the presidency. Thirty-eight percent of respondents disagreed.
  • As the 2024 election nears, a June 2024 Quinnipiac poll revealed that Trump has a lead over Biden at 49% approval to Biden’s 45%. 
  • In the 1972 Watergate scandal, President Nixon faced a similar trial of presidential immunity, which eventually led to his resignation. He claimed, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Mark (No)

The Supreme Court's recent ruling on presidential immunity is an abdication—a surrendering of sorts—of democracy, creating a 'king above the law.' This decision is a blatant contradiction of the ideals our country was founded on, as it tips the scales in the balance of power further away from the other branches of government and, therefore, affects the American people. The ruling frames our government to resemble more of a monarchy rather than a democracy. It allows all future presidents to operate under a pretense of omnipotence—unchecked power—free of potential consequences. The court's liberal justices, as well as the White House and some in the media, all lament that this could be the beginning of the end of Western democracy as we know it.  

One of the most concerning aspects of this ruling is its lack of clarity. The term 'official acts' is ambiguous at best, leaving ample room for interpretation. This ambiguity is a breeding ground for heated debates and congressional squabbles, further dividing the American people. It’s a recipe for increased distrust and dismay for the government, potentially undermining our national unity. 

This ruling by SCOTUS, ironically, is a decision that could easily be considered unconstitutional, which would not be the first time the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutionally—defying its entire purpose. This decision essentially puts the acting president above the law in some aspects. The Constitution exists to protect the American people from complete and total control held by its government. Giving the sitting president this sort of immunity/autonomy could result in a similar uprising that we saw back on Jan 6, 2021. It’s a recipe for anarchy.  

Rob (Yes)

SCOTUS's ruling to provide presidents immunity for official acts is a win for both the judiciary and the executive branches. It prevents a precedence of events that would end up undermining the American presidency and the powers that come with it. 

The President is allowed to exercise executive privilege, which should naturally include confidentiality and legal protection from the difficult decisions that come with the job. The many decisions a President makes throughout his term are often made with the help of other people behind the scenes, including the president’s advisors and other members of his administration. As such, it’s unfair to hold the president solely responsible for making decisions he believes are best for the country, no matter how controversial.

The presidential seat is hardly a walk in the park, as each decision made is unique and involves a lot of legal, political, and ethical considerations that may not be appropriately understood or judged by standard criminal procedures. Denying presidents immunity from official acts would tie their hands when making these kinds of complex and potentially unpopular decisions due to the fear of legal repercussions once they leave office.

Lastly, it’s also important to provide presidents with immunity while in office to prevent the judiciary from being used by subsequent officeholders and other political adversaries as a tool for political retaliation once the president leaves office, as quite evident in the case of former president Donald Trump. This is not to say that presidents should not be held accountable for their conduct; they can still be impeached if the majority believes they are unfit for office.

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