Appeals Court Says Jan. 6 Suits Against Trump Can Proceed for Now

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By Ketrin Agustine

Appeals Court Says Jan. 6 Suits Against Trump Can Proceed for Now

The court left open the possibility that the former president could still prevail in his effort to claim immunity from civil cases seeking to hold him accountable for the violence.

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that civil lawsuits seeking to hold former President Donald J. Trump accountable for the violence that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, can move forward for now, rejecting a broad assertion of immunity that Mr. Trump’s legal team had invoked to try to get the cases dismissed.

But the decision, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, left open the possibility that Mr. Trump could still prevail in his immunity claims after he makes further arguments as to why his fiery speech to supporters near the White House on Jan. 6 should be considered an official presidential act, rather than part of his re-election campaign.

The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution gives presidents immunity from being sued over actions taken as part of their official duties, but not from suits based on private, unofficial acts. The civil cases brought against Mr. Trump have raised the question of which role he was playing at the rally he staged on Jan. 6, when he told supporters to “fight like hell” and urged them to march to the Capitol.

Essentially, the appeals court ruled that at this stage of the case, that question has yet to be definitively answered. It said Mr. Trump must be given an opportunity to present factual evidence to rebut the plaintiffs’ claims that the rally was a campaign event — scrutinizing issues like whether campaign officials had organized it and campaign funds were used to pay for it.

“Because our decision is not necessarily even the final word on the issue of presidential immunity, we of course express no view on the ultimate merits of the claims against President Trump,” Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote for the panel.

He added: “In the proceedings ahead in the district court, President Trump will have the opportunity to show that his alleged actions in the run-up to and on Jan. 6 were taken in his official capacity as president rather than in his unofficial capacity as presidential candidate.”

The panel’s decision to allow the three civil cases to proceed for now in Federal District Court in Washington adds to the array of legal woes that Mr. Trump is facing as he runs again for president.

The ruling comes as the former president has mounted a parallel effort to get the criminal indictment he faces on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election dismissed based on a similar claim of immunity.

In the wake of the Capitol attack, a number of plaintiffs, including members of Congress and police officers who were caught up in or injured during the riot, filed lawsuits against Mr. Trump, blaming him for inciting the mob on Jan. 6 with the speech he gave that day.

Mr. Trump sought to have the cases dismissed at the outset for several reasons, including a claim that his act of speaking to the public about a matter of public concern was an official action, so he was immune from being sued over it. The plaintiffs, by contrast, maintained that the rally and speech were campaign events.

When considering a motion to dismiss, judges decide whether a lawsuit should be thrown out even if they assume that everything plaintiffs claim is true. In February 2022, the trial judge, Amit P. Mehta, rejected Mr. Trump’s arguments and allowed the case to proceed. Mr. Trump then appealed Judge Mehta’s ruling.

The appeals court acknowledged that legal precedents have long protected a president from being sued for actions undertaken as part of his job. But it rejected Mr. Trump’s categorical view that any time a president is speaking about matters of public concern, it should be considered an official act.

“When a first-term president opts to seek a second term, his campaign to win re-election is not an official presidential act,” Judge Srinivasan wrote. “The office of the presidency as an institution is agnostic about who will occupy it next. And campaigning to gain that office is not an official act of the office.”

Kristy Parker, a lawyer for Protect Democracy, which is helping to represent two Capitol Police officers who sued Mr. Trump, praised the decision. “This decision is a significant step forward in establishing that no one is above the law, including a sitting president,” she said.

Joe Sellers, who represented the congressional plaintiffs, said the ruling was “a crucial step closer to holding the former president accountable for the harm brought on members of Congress and on our democracy itself.”

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, said the court’s decision was “limited, narrow, and procedural,” adding that “the facts fully show that on Jan. 6 President Trump was acting on behalf of the American people, carrying out his duties as president of the United States.”

The appellate panel that issued the decision included two appointees of Democratic presidents, Judge Srinivasan, who wrote the main 54-page opinion, and Judge Judith W. Rogers, who filed a narrower concurring opinion. She agreed with most of the main opinion, but thought a section that instructed Judge Mehta about how to evaluate whatever additional facts arise was unnecessary.

The third member was Judge Gregory G. Katsas, who was appointed by Mr. Trump. He also filed a shorter concurring opinion, stressing that courts should try to sort through the ambiguity by looking at objective factors, like whether White House or campaign resources were used to organize and pay for the rally, rather than trying to parse Mr. Trump’s motives.

The issue of presidential immunity is also an important aspect of Mr. Trump’s attempts to invalidate the election interference indictment filed against him in Washington by the special counsel, Jack Smith.

The Justice Department has long maintained a policy that sitting presidents cannot be charged. But Mr. Trump’s motion to dismiss the criminal case on grounds that his actions were official ones was a remarkable attempt to extend the protections afforded to the presidency in his favor.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers essentially claimed that all of the steps he took to subvert the election he lost to President Biden were not crimes, but rather examples of him performing his presidential duties to ensure the integrity of a race he believed had been stolen from him.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing the criminal case, could decide the issue at any moment.

If Judge Chutkan rules against the immunity claims and Mr. Trump’s lawyers challenge her decision, they will likely have to make a detailed finding to the appeals court that his efforts to overturn the outcome in 2020 were not undertaken as part of his re-election campaign but rather in his official role as chief executive.

Win or lose, the lawyers are hoping that a protracted appeal will require moving the election trial — now set to start in March — until after the 2024 election is decided.

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