By Andrew Chung, John Kruzel and Andrew Goudsward
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. special counsel prosecuting Donald Trump on federal charges of trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat asked the Supreme Court on Monday to launch a fast-track review of the former president’s claim he cannot be tried on those charges.
The Supreme Court said it would quickly review Special Counsel Jack Smith’s request, ordering Trump’s lawyers to respond to the request by Dec. 20.
Trump has appealed a decision by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Dec. 1 rejecting his bid to dismiss the case. The judge found no legal support for the position argued by Trump’s lawyers that former presidents cannot face criminal charges for conduct related to their official responsibilities.
It is rare for a prosecutor to ask the Supreme Court to intervene in a case before a lower appeals court has already ruled, but Smith’s move reflects the urgency ahead of the Nov. 5 election. If reelected, Trump could seek to pardon himself of any federal crimes.
Smith told the Supreme Court in a written filing that the “case presents a fundamental question at the heart of our democracy.”
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden, contends that this case and three other criminal prosecutions he faces are politically motivated.
Trump’s appeal suspends his trial, which was scheduled to begin on March 4. “It is of imperative public importance that (Trump’s) claims of immunity be resolved by this court and that (Trump’s) trial proceed as promptly as possible if his claim of immunity is rejected,” Smith said.
Smith said claims by Trump are “profoundly mistaken,” adding that only the Supreme Court “can definitively resolve them.”
Three of the nine justices were appointed by Trump, who cemented a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.
DELAY STRATEGY SEEN
Legal experts have said that Trump’s attorneys could use his immunity appeals to delay the trial, freeing him to campaign.
Prosecutors have accused Trump of attempting to obstruct Congress and defraud the U.S. government through schemes to overturn his loss to Biden in 2020.
Trump has pleaded not guilty to these charges, as well as charges stemming from three other ongoing criminal prosecutions. A Trump spokesperson in an email Monday reiterated criticism of the prosecution as politically motivated, saying, “Smith is willing to try for a Hail Mary by racing to the Supreme Court and attempting to bypass the appellate process.”
Smith asked the justices on Monday to resolve whether a former president is absolutely immune from federal prosecution for conduct undertaken in office, and “the effect, if any, that his acquittal in impeachment proceedings has on this federal prosecution.”
Smith asked the court to fast-track the written submissions required in the case, urging a Dec. 18 deadline for Trump to file a response to his petition.
Chutkan, in rejecting Trump’s immunity claim earlier this month, wrote that attaining the office of U.S. president “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.”
Chutkan also rebuffed Trump’s argument that his prosecution should be barred under “double jeopardy”, the legal principle that people cannot be charged twice for the same offense. Trump has claimed that his second impeachment – in which he was tried and ultimately acquitted by the Senate for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 – was tantamount to a criminal charge for double-jeopardy purposes.
Trump may soon ask the justices to consider a second issue in the election subversion case. Trump on Friday said he would appeal a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit largely upholding a gag order imposed by the trial judge that limits Trump’s statements about witnesses, prosecutors and court staff involved in the case.
The Supreme Court last year rejected Trump’s request to block the release of White House records sought by the Democratic-led congressional panel that was investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung, John Kruzel and Andrew Goudsward; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker)