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Want To Understand What SCOTUS’ Immunity Ruling Really Means? Read The Dissent

On July 1, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that former President Donald Trump is entitled to some immunity in the case against him for his alleged role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. On a larger scale, the SCOTUS immunity ruling sets a new precedent that presidents are immune from prosecution for “official acts” carried out during their presidency — although what exactly qualifies as an “official act” is still extremely unclear.

The ruling was a 6-3 decision, with liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketaji Brown Jackson dissenting, and conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Chief Justice John Roberts in favor. (Barrett only joined the majority opinion in part.)

As a reminder, the Trump immunity case centers around his initial indictment appealed to the Supreme Court, alleging that he and his allies attempted to overturn the 2020 election and exploit the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 for his cause. 

Trump pleaded not guilty to all four counts and sought immunity from the charges, which was initially rejected in February. But now, SCOTUS has decided his immunity should be approved for any actions that can be proved to be done in his professional capacity as president. The task of determining what actions are professional versus what actions are personal has been sent back to the lower courts, thus putting off three out of four decisions in Trump’s trial until after the 2024 election. (Actions such as correspondence with his Justice Department have already been deemed “official,” and Trump therefore cannot be prosecuted for them.)

But aside from the specific impacts on Trump’s charges, this ruling has long-term, far-reaching impacts on the presidency as the U.S. knows it. You may have seen countless social media posts lamenting exactly that fact.

However, the legal language and general panic around this ruling may make it difficult for a layperson to understand what it all means. If you’re unsure about how this ruling may impact the future — or why people seem so upset about it — the dissent opinion published by Sotomayor after the ruling spells it out quite plainly. 

Here are a few of the key quotes from the dissent.

The majority’s extraordinary rule has no basis in law.

In short, the United States’ definition of presidential power has been greatly expanded by this decision. “Never in the history of our republic has a president had reason to believe that he would be immune from criminal prosecution if he used the trappings of his office to violate the criminal law,” Sotomayor wrote in her sharp, 29-page dissent, adding “this majority’s project will have disastrous consequences for the presidency and for our democracy.”

In every use of official power, the president is now a king above the law.

Sotomayor explained some “nightmare scenarios” that this ruling would render the court unable to prosecute, such as the president organizing a coup to hold onto political power or utilizing the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival. 

Further, this ruling doesn’t just mean that the president cannot be prosecuted for his official acts — it also means that those acts can’t be used as evidence or establish motive for unofficial acts, even if they are related to allegations, thus making unofficial acts difficult to prosecute as well. Sotomayor described this as “nonsensical.” (This was also where Barrett agreed with the dissent, rather than the majority.) 

If the [president] misuses official power for personal gain, the criminal law that the rest of us must abide will not provide a backstop.

Sotomayor went on to explain that all former and future presidents would also be “cloaked” in this immunity — thus, any person who ends up in office must be someone who won’t abuse it. 

In response to the ruling, President Joe Biden made a statement promising Americans that he will continue to “respect the limits of a president’s powers” despite SCOTUS’ decision. “The Supreme Court has decided that it will be the character of the men and women who hold the presidency that will define its limits — not the law,” he wrote on X.

Sotomayor signed off her official dissenting opinion by stating her “fear for our democracy” — a chilling reality check for voters, and a new factor to consider before casting their ballots this fall.

Cate Scott

Syracuse '26

Cate Scott is a third-year Syracuse University student pursuing a dual degree in journalism and creative writing. Actively contributing to multiple campus publications and constantly learning about the journalism field in her courses, she is dedicated to expanding her writing skills across various disciplines and formats. She is currently based in Greater Boston and is interested in exploring magazine writing, politics, investigative work, and culture. Cate has been reading and writing poetry and personal essays for years. She hopes to pursue creative writing as well as her journalistic passions in her future career. Beyond her academic pursuits, Cate is a runner and seasoned music nerd. She is on her school's club sailing team and is a proud and active sorority member. The highlights of her weeks include hosting her college radio show, exploring Syracuse, finding time to play her guitar, and doing it all with her roommates and best friends. A native New Englander, Cate spends her summers taking the train into Boston and hiking with her German Shepherd, Maggie.