U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Friday officially vacated the March 4 trial date in the federal election interference case. It was a significant move in that it was a statement straight from the judge herself that the federal trial against Donald Trump isn’t going to start then. At the same time, given that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit panel still hasn’t ruled on Trump’s far-fetched immunity claim, it had gotten increasingly difficult to see how the trial would go forward a month from now.
“The court will set a new schedule if and when the mandate is returned,” Chutkan’s docket order read. The “mandate” is the legal mechanism that will give her control over the case again after the appeal is sorted out. That control currently belongs to the three-judge panel that is considering the immunity issue after hearing argument a month ago.
And what’s taking the panel this long to rule? No one knows for sure, outside of the three judges themselves and whoever they’re keeping informed. I explored a couple weeks ago some of the factors at play, including the challenge of getting all three judges on the same page of a single opinion if they have somewhat divergent views, as well as various complications should any of the judges commit to writing separate opinions. We just don’t know yet, but the opinion could come any day.
Whatever the panel decides, it will likely be further appealed up through the Supreme Court — which doesn’t have to take the case. Whatever the high court decides (including whether to decide), the appeal may still be pending a month from now. Which is to say nothing of the additional time needed for pretrial litigation and preparation once the case is back with Chutkan (this also assumes the likely event the courts don’t bestow Trump with king-like immunity from prosecution). Against that backdrop, Chutkan’s order looks like simply confirming the undeniable.
It does, however, officially open that month up for another Trump criminal trial: his state prosecution in New York, which was previously set for late March. (He still has a May date in the Florida federal case, which could also be delayed; he doesn't have a date in Georgia.) If the former president’s lawyers were hoping to use the technical existence of the federal trial date as a reason to push off the state case, they no longer have that option.
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