A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected former President Donald J. Trump’s claim that he was immune to charges of plotting to subvert the results of the 2020 election, ruling that he must go to trial on a criminal indictment accusing him of seeking to overturn his loss to President Biden.
The 3-0 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed Mr. Trump a significant defeat, but was unlikely to be the final word on his claims of executive immunity. Mr. Trump is expected to continue his appeal to the Supreme Court — possibly with an intermediate request to the full appeals court.
Still, the panel’s 57-page ruling signaled an important moment in American jurisprudence, answering a question that had never been addressed by an appeals court: Can former presidents escape being held accountable by the criminal justice system for things they did while in office?
The question is novel because no former president until Mr. Trump had been indicted, so there was never an opportunity for a defendant to make — and courts to consider — the sweeping claim of executive immunity that he has put forward.
The panel, composed of two judges appointed by Democrats and one Republican appointee, said in its decision that, despite the privileges of the office he once held, Mr. Trump was subject to federal criminal law like any other American.
“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all of the defenses of any other criminal defendant,” the panel wrote. “But any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as president no longer protects him against this prosecution.”
The panel’s ruling came nearly a month after it heard arguments on the immunity issue from Mr. Trump’s legal team and from prosecutors working for the special counsel, Jack Smith. While the decision was quick by the standards of a normal appeal, what happens next will be arguably more important in determining when or whether a trial on the election subversion charges — now set to start in early March — will take place.