December 1, 2023
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.
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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.”