A federal appeals court ruled today that civil lawsuits seeking to hold former President Donald Trump accountable for the violence that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, can move forward for now, rejecting a broad assertion of immunity that Trump’s legal team had invoked to try to get the cases dismissed.
But the decision, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, left open the possibility that Trump could still eventually prevail in his immunity claims after he makes further arguments as to why his fiery speech to supporters near the White House on Jan. 6 should be considered an official act, rather than part of his reelection campaign.
The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution gives presidents immunity from being sued over actions taken as part of their official duties. The lawsuits against Trump have raised the question of whether his speaking to his supporters about the 2020 election results fell within his official job responsibilities.
Essentially, the appeals court ruled that at this stage of the case, that question has yet to be answered. It said Trump must be given an opportunity to present factual evidence to rebut the plaintiffs’ claims that the rally was a campaign event — scrutinizing issues like whether campaign officials organized it and campaign funds were used to pay for it.
“Because our decision is not necessarily even the final word on the issue of presidential immunity, we of course express no view on the ultimate merits of the claims against President Trump,” the panel wrote.
The court added, “In the proceedings ahead in the district court, President Trump will have the opportunity to show that his alleged actions in the run-up to and on Jan. 6 were taken in his official capacity as president rather than in his unofficial capacity as presidential candidate.”
Even though the panel’s ruling was a narrow one, it allowed the civil cases to proceed for now in U.S. District Court in Washington, adding to the array of legal woes that Trump is facing as he runs again for president. The ruling comes as Trump has mounted a parallel effort to get the criminal indictment he faces on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election dismissed based on a similar claim of immunity.
In its 67-page ruling, the panel acknowledged that legal precedents have long protected a president from being sued for actions undertaken as part of his job. But it rejected Trump’s view that anytime a president is speaking about matters of public concern, it should always be considered an official act.
“When a first-term President opts to seek a second term, his campaign to win reelection is not an official presidential act,” the court said. “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.”
In the wake of the Capitol attack, a number of plaintiffs, including members of Congress and police officers who were caught up in the riot, filed a series of suits against Trump in Washington, blaming him for inciting the mob on Jan. 6 with the speech he gave that day. Trump sought to have the cases dismissed, claiming, among other things, that he was immune from civil lawsuits.
In February 2022, the trial judge, Amit Mehta, rejected Trump’s arguments, saying that the former president was not shielded by presidential immunity or the First Amendment. Trump then appealed Mehta’s ruling.
The panel that ruled today included two appointees of Democratic presidents, Judges Sri Srinivasan and Judith Rogers, and one who was appointed by Trump, Judge Gregory Katsas.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.