Justices to Americans: Bow to your king

In a 6-3 decision on Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that certain “official acts” by a president are shielded by “absolute immunity” from criminal prosecution. The majority opinion deals a victory to former president Donald Trump and his legal team, which has hinged his defense against a four-count federal indictment for crimes alleged in his attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election that he lost to President Biden. But it also sends the chilling message that no future president can be held to account by the Rule of Law.

While the six majority justices – all of them aligned with right-leaning Republican ideology – allow that other “unofficial acts” are not afforded immunity from prosecution, the definitions outlined in their opinion are so broad and sweeping as to make it virtually impossible to check any abuse at the executive level.

In a cruel irony, the ruling was published three days before Independence Day, our most revered federal holiday that marks the 1776 Declaration of Independence, our republic’s founding document that sought, as its core principle, to reject the despotism and absolute rule of the British crown. This week’s decision is a betrayal of that founding principle, granting one person – above all other Americans – absolution from abuses of power and criminality. And it sends a disturbing message to allies of the former president and presumptive Republican nominee that their own crimes —past, present, and future— might also go unpunished.

In her dissent published along with the majority opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson summarized the dangers of this paradigm shift in stark terms: “Stated simply: The Court has now declared for the first time in history that the most powerful official in the United States can (under circumstances yet to be fully determined) become a law unto himself.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor put it thusly about the “law-free zone” that her colleagues have unleashed around Trump and any of his successors: “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,” she wrote in a stirring dissent. “Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune. Let the President violate the law, let him exploit the trappings of his office for personal gain, let him use his official power for evil ends.”

As we enter the second half of a penultimate presidential election year, the American people must now come to grips with the fact that one of the core institutions we have long counted on to protect our experiment in self-government from the worst impulses of human nature has washed its hands of its duty to defend us and the Constitution.

As Justice Jackson writes in the closing moments of her dissent: “As we enter this uncharted territory, the People, in their wisdom, will need to remain ever attentive, consistently fulfilling their established role in our constitutional democracy, and thus collectively serving as the ultimate safeguard against any chaos spawned by this Court’s decision.”

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