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Donald Trump isn't immune from lawsuits over Jan. 6 Capitol attack: appeals court

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that former President Donald Trump doesn't deserve absolute immunity from three civil lawsuits accusing him of inciting the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021.

The three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the lawsuits to continue by ruling actions outside the functions of his office don't enjoy immunity, just because he happens to be the president."

"President Trump moved in the district court to dismiss the claims against him, including on grounds of a President’s official-act immunity from damages liability," Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote. "We answer no, at least at this stage of the proceedings."

Lawyers for the lawmakers and Capitol police officers who filed the lawsuits called the decision "momentous" and said they looked forward to pursuing their claims.

Srinivasan and Judges George Katsas and Judith Rogers heard the case. Srinivasan was appointed to the appeals court by Barack Obama, Katsas by Trump and Rogers by Bill Clinton.

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President Donald Trump addresses his supporters at a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as president in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
President Donald Trump addresses his supporters at a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as president in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

What are the lawsuits about?

The three lawsuits each accuse Trump of inciting the riot and seek to hold him responsible for it. Nearly 1,000 people have been charged in the attack after a mob rampaged through the Capitol and temporarily prevented Congress from counting the Electoral College votes that formalized Joe Biden's 2020 victory over Trump. One rioter was shot to death outside the House chamber by a police officer. A police officer who was sprayed by chemicals during the attack died the next day from a stroke.

  • Ten House Democrats filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which sought to protect lawmakers from threats or intimidation against carrying out their duties. The lawsuit filed in February 2021 initially named Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as well as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, far-right groups with dozens of members charged criminally in the attack.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., initially was lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but dropped out when he became head of the House committee that investigated the attack. The remaining litigants are current or former Reps. Bonnie Coleman Watson, D-N.J.; Karen Bass, D-Calif.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Henry Johnson, D-Ga.; Stephen Cohen, D-Tenn.; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., filed a lawsuit in March 2021 accusing Trump of knowing about the conspiracy to attack the Capitol and doing nothing to stop it. His lawsuit also targeted Giuliani; the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.; and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who each spoke at a Trump rally near the White House before the attack.

  • U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta dropped Trump Jr., Giuliani and Brooks from the cases by ruling their speeches at the rally and other actions didn’t make them part of an alleged conspiracy.

  • Two Capitol Police officers, James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby, filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conduct incited the riot by urging his followers to try to overturn the election results.

Patrick Malone, a lawyer representing the police officers, said they look forward to pursuing their claims in court.

“Today’s ruling makes clear that those who endanger our democracy and the lives of those sworn to defend it will be held to account,” Malone said.

Blassingame said he is committed to pursuing accountability in the case.

“More than two years later, it is unnerving to hear the same fabrications and dangerous rhetoric that put my life as well as the lives of my fellow officers in danger on January 6, 2021,” Blassingame said. "I hope our case will assist with helping put our democracy back on the right track; making it crystal clear that no person, regardless of title or position of stature, is above the rule of law.”

Joe Sellers, a lawyer who argued the appeal for House lawmakers, called the decision “momentous.”

“This decision is momentous not only for our clients but for all Americans,” Sellers said. “Today’s victory brings us a crucial step closer to holding the former president accountable for the harm brought on members of Congress and on our democracy itself.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Trump should be held accountable and the advocacy group would continue fighting to protect the rights of Black voters.

“Donald Trump has and continues to pose an imminent threat to democracy,” Johnson said. “The attempted coup on Jan. 6 threatened the perseverance of our electoral process and the safety of our Congressional members and staff, as well as the law enforcement who protect our nation's Capital.”

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

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What did Trump argue?

Trump’s lawyers urged the appeals court to dismiss the lawsuits by arguing that contentious speeches such as the one he gave Jan. 6, 2021, are part of a president’s job.

“The underlying question here is simple: is a president immune from civil liability when he or she gives a speech on a matter of public concern?” Trump’s lawyers said. “The answer is undoubtedly, yes.”

Trump’s lawyers have argued he is immune from lawsuits for anything he said at the rally. They also argued he couldn’t be part of any conspiracy to incite the violence because he urged participants to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” at the Capitol.

But in allowing the cases to continue, Mehta, who is also overseeing criminal cases from the Capitol attack, noted Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell” before his supporters battled police and forced their way into the building.

“At the end of his remarks, he told rally-goers, ‘we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,’” Mehta said.

Trump's presidential campaign issued a statement Thursday saying he called repeatedly during the speech for peace, patriotism and respect for law enforcement. The campaign argued federal courts should dismiss what it called frivolous lawsuits.

President Donald Trump urges supporters to march to the Capitol at a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
President Donald Trump urges supporters to march to the Capitol at a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

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What did the Justice Department argue?

The appeals panel heard oral arguments about the case in December and asked the Justice Department to weigh in.

Government lawyers took no position on the three lawsuits. And they said presidents are typically protected from civil lawsuits because of their broad official duties and the difficulties distinguishing them from personal duties.

But the department lawyers said no president should be able to incite violence, despite Trump's claim of absolute immunity from all lawsuits.

Government lawyers urged the appeals court judges to set narrow rules for the lawsuits to continue, to avoid saddling a president with lawsuits that would be burdensome and intrusive even if meritless.

"It is not a rule of absolute immunity for the president, regardless of the nature of his acts," the lawyers said.

"The district court also correctly rejected President Trump’s categorical assertion 'that whenever and wherever a President speaks on a matter of public concern he is immune from civil suit,'” the department lawyers said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump not immune from Jan. 6 lawsuits: appeals court