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How the Supreme Court may play a pivotal role in 2024, from immunity to insurrection

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Saturday in Durham, N.H. He is at the center of a few key questions that the Supreme Court could take on during the 2024 presidential election.
Reba Saldanha
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Saturday in Durham, N.H. He is at the center of a few key questions that the Supreme Court could take on during the 2024 presidential election.

Updated December 22, 2023 at 3:36 PM ET

Less than a year away from the 2024 presidential election, one thing is now clear: The Supreme Court is poised to play a pivotal — if not decisive — role.

The high court already is considering two legal questions related to former president and current GOP front-runner Donald Trump. This week, Trump vowed to appeal a third case out of Colorado, which threatens to keep him off the primary ballot in that state because of his effort to overturn the last election.

Public confidence in the court has plunged amid ethics scandals and the move to overturn a landmark abortion case last term. The sheer number of issues now on its docket that relate to Trump could prompt even more intense scrutiny.

The Supreme Court has a conservative majority with three Trump-nominated justices, though it's not clear how they'll view these cases.

Here are three of the legal disputes to watch.

1. Presidential immunity

Trump is advancing a bold argument to defend himself against conspiracy charges related to his efforts to cling to power in 2020. His lawyers say he's entitled to absolute immunity — a complete shield — from federal criminal prosecution, because he was president at the time.

That issue has never reached the Supreme Court. Until Trump, who's fighting 91 felony charges across four U.S. jurisdictions, no president has been charged with a crime.

Special counsel Jack Smith says no one is above the law — not even a former president. Earlier this month, Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed, ruling Trump is not entitled to a " 'get-out-of-jail-free' pass."

Prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to step in and decide once and for all — an apparent effort to try to preserve a March 2024 trial date, or at least an attempt to ensure Trump faces trial in Washington, D.C., before the next election.

On Friday, though, the high court denied that petition for fast-tracked consideration. The action now turns to the federal appeals court in Washington, which is set to hear argument in the matter on Jan. 9.

The question of immunity is still expected to reach the court, just on a longer timeline.

2. Obstruction of Congress

On Dec. 13, the Supreme Court announced it would review the case of Joseph Fischer, a former police officer charged with obstructing an official proceeding at the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Fischer says the Justice Department overreached when it charged him under a corporate fraud statute usually reserved for people who tamper with documents and evidence.

But prosecutors have deployed that law against more than 300 other Capitol rioters — and it forms the basis of two charges against Trump in the D.C. federal case, leading to questions about whether the court might upset dozens of other convictions and sentences.

The court will hear the case in its current term and could announce its ruling sometime in June.

3. Insurrection and the oath of office

A divided Colorado Supreme Court ruled late Tuesday that Trump could be barred from that state's 2024 Republican primary ballot since he took an oath of office and then engaged in insurrection, in violation of part of the 14th Amendment. Congress passed that Reconstruction-era provision to hold accountable members of the confederacy after the Civil War.

This year, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington backed lawsuits in multiple U.S. states to disqualify Trump from the ballot. Several courts have dismissed those cases on procedural or substantive grounds, but the Colorado court ruled 4-3 against Trump.

"We do not reach these conclusions lightly," the court majority wrote. "We are mindful of the magnitude and weight of the questions now before us. We are likewise mindful of our solemn duty to apply the law, without fear or favor, and without being swayed by public reaction to the decisions that the law mandates we reach."

Trump has vowed to appeal the "completely flawed" decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. "We have full confidence that the U.S. Supreme Court will quickly rule in our favor and finally put an end to these un-American lawsuits," Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said.

Until then, the Colorado ruling is on hold into the new year.

If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, which legal experts said seems likely, the high court could fashion a ruling that would apply not just in Colorado, but across the country.

Another major issue for the election and the court: abortion

Abortion rights have already become a motivating issue for voters and a major topic on the campaign trail, sparked largely by the court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022. That's not the last word the court will have on abortion, either.

The court is now preparing to hear a case that could make the abortion pill mifepristone less accessible.

Since 2016, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed patients to obtain prescriptions through telemedicine appointments, and to get the drug by mail. Medication abortions are now the most widely used abortion method.

While the court hears the dispute over how mifepristone can be prescribed, the medication will remain available.

A decision in this case is likely by the summertime, in the heat of the 2024 presidential campaign.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.