Sotomayor's dissent: A president should not be a 'king above the law'

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an unsparing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Supreme Court allowed a president to become a “king above the law” in its ruling that limited the scope of criminal charges against former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the election.

She called the decision, which likely ended the prospect of a trial for Trump before the November election, “utterly indefensible.”

“The court effectively creates a law-free zone around the president, upsetting the status quo that has existed since the founding,” she wrote. She was joined by liberal justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, who wrote another dissent referring to the ruling's consequences as a “five alarm fire.”

Sotomayor read her dissent aloud in the courtroom, with a weighty delivery that underscored her criticism of the majority. She strongly pronounced each word, pausing at certain moments and gritting her teeth at others.

“Ironic isn’t it? The man in charge of enforcing laws can now just break them,” Sotomayor said.

Chief Justice John Roberts accused the liberal justices of fearmongering in the 6-3 majority opinion. It found that presidents aren't above the law but must be entitled to presumptive immunity to allow them to forcefully exercise the office's far-reaching powers and avoid a vicious cycle of politically motivated prosecutions.

While the opinion allows for the possibility of prosecutions for private acts, Sotomayor said it “deprives these prosecutions of any teeth” by excluding any evidence that related to official acts where the president is immune.

“This majority’s project will have disastrous consequences for the presidency and for our democracy,” she said. She ended by saying, “With fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

Trump, for his part, has denied doing anything wrong and has said this prosecution and three others are politically motivated to try to keep him from returning to the White House.

The other justices looked on in silence and largely remained still as Sotomayor spoke, with Justice Samuel Alito shuffling through papers and appearing to study them.

Sotomayor pointed to historical evidence, from the founding fathers to Watergate, that presidents could potentially face prosecution. She took a jab at the conservative majority that has made the nation's history a guiding principle on issues like guns and abortion. “Interesting, history matters, right?”

Then she looked at the courtroom audience and concluded, “Except here.”

The majority feared that the threat of potential prosecution could constrain a president or create a “cycle of factional strife,” that the founders intended to avoid.

Sotomayor, on the other handed, pointed out that presidents have access to extensive legal advice about their actions and that criminal cases typically face high bars in court to proceed.

“It is a far greater danger if the president feels empowered to violate federal criminal law, buoyed by the knowledge of future immunity,” she said. “I am deeply troubled by the idea ... that our nation loses something valuable when the president is forced to operate within the confines of federal criminal law.”


Associated Press writer Stephen Groves contributed to this story.