By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Kristin A. Shapiro
April 17, 2023, in the Wall Street Journal
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment of Donald Trump could mean trouble down the road for Joe Biden. “I think our Republican AGs and DAs”—attorneys general and district attorneys—“should get creative,” Mike Davis, a Republican former Senate staffer, told the New York Post. Rep. James Comer told Fox that he’s heard from at least two prosecutors who “want to know if there are ways they can go after the Bidens now.”
Mr. Biden himself is currently safe under the accepted view that sitting presidents are immune from prosecution. But under the Trump precedent, what’s to stop an ambitious Republican prosecutor somewhere from bringing dubious state charges against him before a hostile jury after he leaves office? Likewise for his successors of either party. Every four to eight years, prosecutors would order up a presidential ham sandwich. Presidents might end up having to flee the country when they leave office.
But there’s a way Mr. Trump could stop the madness that would serve his own interests as well as his successors’. His lawyers should file a notice in the Southern District of New York to remove the case to federal court under a unique legal defense: immunity under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.
The clause provides that federal laws, including the Constitution, “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” The Supreme Court stated in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that “it is of the very essence” of the federal government’s supremacy “to remove all obstacles to its action within its own sphere, and so to modify every power vested in subordinate governments, as to exempt its own operations from their own influence.” The justices invalidated Maryland’s tax on the Bank of the United States on grounds that the power to tax the federal government would make a state “capable of arresting all the measures of the government, and of prostrating it at the foot of the states.”
One pivotal aspect of the Supremacy Clause is its provision of immunity to federal officers from state criminal prosecution for actions relating to their federal duties. The seminal case is In re Neagle (1890), in which the justices held that California couldn’t criminally prosecute a federal marshal for killing a man in defense of Justice Stephen Field. If a federal officer “can be arrested and brought to trial in a state court for an alleged offense against the law of the state, yet warranted by the federal authority they possess,” the court found, “the operations of the general government may at any time be arrested at the will of one of its members.”
To be sure, the case against Mr. Trump involves conduct that wasn’t “warranted by the federal authority” he possessed. But there is a strong argument that Supremacy Clause immunity should extend to any state criminal prosecutions of federal officers undertaken because of their federal service, even if the charged conduct is unrelated to their federal duties. Permitting states to burden former federal officers on account of their federal services offends the Supremacy Clause’s core principles and makes it easy for aggressive state prosecutors to circumvent. As the Supreme Court warned in Neagle, “unfriendly” states could administer the law “in such a manner as to paralyze the operations of the government.” That threat exists anytime former or current federal officers are targeted for criminal prosecution because of their federal service. A president or other official can’t lead effectively under constant threat of retaliatory prosecution.
Mr. Trump’s foes like to say that no one is above the law; and Mr. Biden’s enemies would no doubt adopt the same slogan. But Supremacy Clause immunity wouldn’t vitiate that principle. It wouldn’t prevent federal prosecutions, and it would protect against state criminal prosecutions only when the prosecutor targeted the defendant for his federal service. Mr. Trump could still be prosecuted if he shot a passerby on Fifth Avenue.
A recognition of Supremacy Clause immunity in this context would involve an inquiry into a prosecutor’s state of mind, something courts are reluctant to undertake in most contexts. But not all—courts are regularly required to determine, for example, whether a prosecutor has engaged in racial discrimination in jury selection, or whether a state criminal prosecution is motivated by a desire to harass the defendant.
First Amendment case law also recognizes, in the context of protecting core constitutional rights, the impermissibility of disparate law-enforcement treatment. In Nieves v. Bartlett (2019), the high court held that probable cause isn’t sufficient to block a retaliatory-arrest claim “when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.”
An inquiry into whether a state criminal prosecution was undertaken because of the defendant’s federal service would involve judicially manageable questions such as whether a reasonable prosecutor would bring the charges and whether there are indicia of political retribution. Mr. Trump has a strong argument here. Does anyone believe he’d be prosecuted for anything having to do with Stormy Daniels if he hadn’t become president?
Federal officers, including former officers, have a statutory right to remove state civil or criminal cases against them “for or relating to any act under color of such office” to federal court (emphasis added). The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this language broadly, explaining in Willingham v. Morgan (1969) that “the test for removal should be broader, not narrower, than the test for official immunity” because the purpose of the statute “is to have the validity of the defense of official immunity tried in a federal court.”
In Jefferson County v. Acker (1999), the justices permitted removal of state actions against two federal judges seeking collection of a state occupational tax. The court explained that, even though the tax was imposed on the judges personally, it was effectively a tax on the performance of their federal duties, thereby providing the “essential nexus” between their official duties and the state prosecution.
Mr. Trump has 30 days after his arraignment—until May 4—to invoke the federal-officer removal statute. Because a novel and important constitutional issue would be at stake, the case could easily reach the Supreme Court, and it would be wise for the federal courts to delay any state trial until Mr. Trump’s immunity defense is resolved. With only 21 months remaining in his term, Mr. Biden might find himself quietly rooting for a decision in his predecessor’s favor.
Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Ms. Shapiro served as an attorney-adviser at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the Trump and Biden administrations and is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.