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Trump doesn't have immunity from Jan. 6 civil suit brought by U.S. Capitol Police officers, appeals court says

Posted at 3:11 PM, Dec 29, 2023

A federal appeals court on Friday allowed a lawsuit brought by a group of U.S. Capitol Police officers against former President Donald Trump to move forward, ruling that Trump is not entitled to absolute immunity from civil lawsuits. The suit focuses on Trump's alleged conduct surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit based its decision on a ruling in a separate case brought by two Capitol Police officers and a group of House Democrats that was handed down earlier this month. In its Dec. 1 opinion, the D.C. Circuit rejected Trump's claim that he is shielded from civil liability because his alleged actions in connection to the Jan. 6 attack fell within the official functions of the presidency.

In its unsigned opinion Friday, the three judges said the case before them is "indistinguishable" from the other dispute and said Trump's argument that he has immunity "fails."

"'Whether [President Trump's] actions involved speech on matters of public concern bears no inherent connection to the essential distinction between official and unofficial acts,'" Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan and Judges Bradley Garcia and Judith Rogers wrote in their opinion, quoting from the D.C. Circuit's earlier ruling.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case was brought in August 2021 by seven Capitol Police officers who defended the Capitol complex on Jan. 6 and were assaulted and harassed during the riot, which they said was the result of "unlawful actions" by Trump and his allies.

In addition to suing Trump, the officers named more than a dozen others as defendants. Among them are members of the far-right extremist groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, as well as Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally. The Capitol Police officers sought civil damages for the physical and emotional injuries they said they suffered as a result of the Jan. 6 attack.

Trump asked the federal District Court in Washington to dismiss the case, arguing he is absolutely immune from being sued for the alleged acts. But in January, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rejected his argument and allowed the case to proceed.

Mehta applied the same reasoning used in the case filed by the Democratic lawmakers and two police officers. There, he ruled in February 2022 that Trump is not entitled to broad immunity from civil lawsuits seeking to hold him accountable for the Jan. 6 riot.

Referencing Trump's speech outside the White House before the Capitol building was breached, Mehta said the remarks were not part of the president's official duties. Instead, the judge said, Trump's words were "an implicit call for imminent violence or lawlessness" that is not protected by presidential immunity or the First Amendment.

The D.C. Circuit agreed with the lower court's finding and rejected Trump's argument that he was engaging in an official function of the presidency when he spoke outside the White House on Jan. 6.

"When a first-term president opts to seek a second term, his campaign to win re-election is not an official presidential act," Srinivasan, who was assigned both cases, wrote for the three-judge panel. "The Office of the Presidency as an institution is agnostic about who will occupy it next. And campaigning to gain that office is not an official act of the office."

Trump can seek review of the adverse rulings in both cases to the full D.C. Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The former president has argued on several occasions that cases against him should be dismissed on the grounds of presidential immunity, though with little success. Most recently, the federal district judge presiding over his criminal case in Washington, D.C., ruled Trump cannot be shielded from federal prosecution for crimes allegedly committed while he was in the White House.

His criminal case arose out of his alleged efforts to thwart the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the four charges he faces.

The former president appealed the ruling from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, and the D.C. Circuit has fast-tracked the case, scheduling arguments on the immunity issue for Jan. 9. Special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the charges against Trump, asked the Supreme Court to bypass the appellate court and quickly decide the matter, but the high court rejected Smith's request last week.