The Justice Department requested an appeals court on Thursday to reject broad assertions of presidential immunity made by the late President Donald Trump in the civil case involving the uprising at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The department argued that a president cannot be completely exempt from liability for speech on an issue of public concern if the speech is found to have incited violence. The appeals court is currently considering several private lawsuits filed against Trump for his actions leading up to the attack on the Capitol.
The Justice Department stated this in a friend-of-the-court brief that the US DC Circuit Court of Appeals requested the government submit. “No aspect of a president’s official responsibilities involves the instigation of impending private violence,” the brief read.
The department hasn’t directly addressed the issue of Trump’s civil immunity for his actions connected to January 6 until Thursday’s brief. Democratic House members and Capitol Police officers filed the lawsuits.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that presidents are completely immune from civil lawsuits resulting from their official activities as president. Yet, the courts are still unsure about when a presidential address qualifies as an official act.
The Justice Department told the DC Circuit that in “all settings, concerns of presidential immunity must be considered with the greatest sensitivity to the unceasing demands of the Presidency,” emphasising the difficulty of the legal disputes surrounding presidential immunity.
The Justice Department did advise the court not to draw hard lines on whether the president can be held accountable for remarks linked to election or political concerns using the January 6 civil cases as a vehicle. Instead, the department requested that the DC Circuit provide a “limited” decision that was only focused on Trump’s legal team’s argument that his speech as president should be exempt from civil litigation even if it incites violence.
The January 6 civil proceedings are currently in a stage when the courts are analysing concerns about the legal viability of the claims made against Trump, but those courts are not yet taking the allegations made against the former president’s credibility into account. A district court judge previously rejected Trump’s request to have the case dismissed, concluding that the former president was not completely exempt from the civil action filed on January 6.
Trump’s appeal to overturn that decision is currently being considered by the DC Circuit. The appeals court requested input from the Justice Department last year after hearing arguments in the case.
“The United States here expresses no view on the district court’s determination that plaintiffs have plausibly contended that President Trump’s remarks on January 6 incited the ensuing attack on the Capitol,” the DOJ stated in its brief. This Court should reject the categorical argument President Trump asserted below and renews on appeal because real incitement would not be protected by absolute immunity even if it occurred in the context of a speech on issues of public concern.
A Trump spokeswoman responded to the filing by saying, “The D.C. Courts should decide in President Trump’s favour shortly and reject these bogus claims.”
The Justice Department has had a difficult time determining whether Trump can be sued in civil court for his actions while serving as president.
As it maintained the department’s stance from the Trump administration that President Trump could not be sued personally for allegedly defaming a woman who accused him of sexual assault, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, faced criticism from the left. Although the courts are still debating the issue, if they rule in favour of the DOJ, E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit would be automatically dismissed.
The agency is attempting to take a very specific stance regarding why Trump might perhaps be held accountable in the civil litigation for his actions on January 6 in the January 6 civil proceedings.
The petition requests that the DC Circuit refrain from issuing any decision that would “to thoroughly define the boundaries of the president’s immunity for his speech on subjects of public concern – including when and how to draw a boundary between the president’s official and electoral speech.”
Insisting that it was not weighing in on any potential criminal responsibility, the Justice Department said.
According to a footnote in the brief, the department “does not express any view about the potential criminal responsibility of any person for the events of January 6, 2021, or conduct associated with those events.”
A federal criminal investigation into Trump and his associates’ attempts to rig the 2020 election is being led by a special counsel.