Justice Sonia Sotomayor Issues Scathing Dissent of Trump Immunity Ruling

Justice Sotomayor criticized the new Supreme Court ruling stating it "reshapes the institution of the presidency

Sonia Sotomayor

FILE - Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor attends a panel discussion, Feb. 23, 2024 in Washington. The Supreme Court allowed a president to become a "king above the law," in the use of official power, Sotomayor said in a biting dissent Monday, July 1, that called the majority opinion on immunity for former President Donald Trump "utterly indefensible." Joined by the court's two other liberals, Sotomayor said the opinion would have disastrous consequences for the presidency and the nation's democracy by creating a "law-free zone around the president." (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has made controversial rulings including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, and student loan forgiveness. This week, the Court ruled that U.S. presidents will be immune from criminal prosecution for official acts they commit during their tenure as opposed to acts they commit as a private citizen, though this difference is yet to be determined. Chief Justice John Roberts explained: “At least with respect to the President’s exercise of his core constitutional powers, this immunity must be absolute.” Moving forward, this will most likely pardon former President Donal Trump from state and federal charges he currently faces in Florida and Georgia, as well as provide immunity for other presidents in the future. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is the first and only Supreme Court Justice of Latin American descent, the third woman, the first woman of color, and one of only three liberal judges serving on the court, read aloud in the courtroom a critical dissent of the Court’s decision. While it has no power to overturn the new ruling, she has raised important questions about the impact this will have on future presidents, the extent of their power and outside checks on that power, and the state of the entire country itself, according to the Associated Press.

“Today’s decision to grant former Presidents criminal immunity reshapes the institution of the Presidency,” Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, wrote in the dissent. “The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably. In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

Up until now, U.S. presidents have operated under the assumption that their official acts as president are no different than acts they commit as private citizens; both are subject to criminal prosecution in court, especially after they leave office. That said, no president prior to President Trump has ever been charged with a crime because of the natural difficulty in prosecuting such a powerful figure. Since President George Washington, only three U.S. presidents have ever been at risk of prosecution.

While President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding and later fined, President Richard Nixon was almost indicted in the Watergate scandal but was pardoned by President Gerald Ford and resigned. Years later, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstruction of justice following the Monica Lewinsky scandal but he was acquitted on both counts and remained in office.

Even President Trump, though he became the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, was later acquitted by the Senate. This year, he became the first former U.S. president to be convicted of felony crimes when a New York jury found him guilty of all 34 charges in attempt to illegally influence the 2016 election. However, this new Supreme Court ruling may mean that he will be immune from facing consequences for those acts as well.

Sotomayor’s dissent against this decision also pointed out that the ruling could be exploited by the President to commit acts of corruption without consequence, including ordering assassinations, organizing coups, and taking bribes. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve the Court and one of the only other liberal judges, also wrote a critical dissent. In response, Chief Justice John Roberts, who is one of the longest-serving members of the Court, accused Sotomayor and Jackson of “fear mongering,” according to the AP, claiming that the ruling, rather than putting them above the law, would allow the president to use their powers without fear of being prosecuted by those who are ideologically and politically against them.

Ultimately, Sotomayor made it clear that she’s more concerned with how the court will differentiate between official and unofficial acts, which may change depending on its own political interests.

“The majority’s dividing line between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ conduct narrows the conduct considered ‘unofficial” almost to a nullity,” she added in her dissent. “Under that rule, any use of official power for any purpose, even the most corrupt purpose indicated by objective evidence of the most corrupt motives and intent, remains official and immune…I am deeply troubled by the idea, inherent in the majority’s opinion, that our Nation loses something valuable when the President is forced to operate within the confines of federal criminal law.”

We have yet to see the immediate impacts of this ruling, though it will likely play a part in President Trump’s ongoing trials in Florida and Georgia. The second presidential debate between Trump and Biden is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 10.

In her scathing dissent, Sotomayor stated: “Ironic isn’t it? The man in charge of enforcing laws can now just break them.”

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