IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump’s arraignment creates a virtually unprecedented legal problem

We may find ourselves deep into the 2024 election season before a trial date is set.

On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump will receive his most poignant reminder yet that he is no longer the commander in chief. He will be arraigned in Manhattan, receive a New York State Identification number, and become citizen Donald J. Trump, a defendant against the people of the state of New York. Even as other investigations and additional potential prosecutions swirl in his orbit, this step of the first indictment filed against a former president represents a seismic shift in accountability for the highest reaches of power and privilege. But as we come to grips with that shift and what accountability Trump will face both legally and politically, it is important to remember an old adage: The wheels of justice are often slow.

Trump arraignment: Follow our live blog beginning at 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday for the latest updates and analysis on Trump’s arrest in New York.

A criminal case of this nature can easily drag out for over a year. That is a function of high caseloads on local district attorneys who are already saddled with a considerable amount of prosecutions with defendants just like Trump who are already in line for their day in court. Trump’s case will not jump that line, and it is likely that in mounting a vigorous defense against the pending charges, his defense team will engage in several legal maneuvers on his behalf. Motion practice of any sort (a motion to dismiss, for example) is not uncommon and will assuredly prolong the overall process.

It is not unfathomable that we will find ourselves deep into the 2024 election season before a trial date is set.

Delay tactics have been a staple in the Trump defense playbook when he has been sued in civil court. This criminal case is likely to be no different, and those tactics only lengthen the time between Tuesday’s arraignment and whatever eventual trial that takes place. It is not unfathomable that we will find ourselves deep into the 2024 election season before a trial date is set. The judge in this case, Juan Merchan, may be inclined to avoid frivolous motions from Trump’s attorneys (those intended to bring about obvious delays). Where such legal moves have merit though, it will be important that they are given ample consideration as with any defendant, in order to avoid any scenario in which his attorneys can launch a viable appeal on the grounds that an issue was improperly ignored or altogether dismissed for judicial economy.

The quandary this could create is, as with many features of this case, virtually unprecedented. The closer the proceedings run to an election in which Trump has already declared his candidacy, the more credence there is to an argument of election interference if a trial is allowed to take place at that time. That could create a situation where the judge opts to move the trial date until after the election. And a Trump victory would only further complicate a situation that is already anything but straightforward.

It is equally important to understand that first indicted does not mean first to trial. While Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is the first law enforcement entity to bring criminal charges against Trump, because there are other criminal investigations pending with him as a target, the speed of those potential prosecutions is unrelated to what happens in New York. Because federal cases advance at a different pace, the investigations being conducted by the Justice Department via special counsel Jack Smith could move much more quickly than Bragg’s case of document fraud or the potential election interference being investigated in Georgia by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

The timelines for any other trials — if there are any other trials — remain further unclear because, like any defendant, Trump would not be required to be on trial in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously. Other prosecutions could move forward, but if they do, ultimately, Trump would likely exercise his right to a trial in each case. Accordingly, he would be granted some window between each trial to prepare a defense, which could result in scheduling delays. As with Merchan, any judges hearing those matters in other jurisdictions would need to make legitimate efforts not to handle scheduling or any other matters in a way that unduly prejudices Trump as a defendant.

A former president facing accountability for alleged wrongdoing serves as the ultimate stress test for American democracy.

As this long legal process reaches a new stage, many believe that it represents a sad chapter in American history and that the entire circumstance of a former president facing multiple criminal charges and investigations is a national embarrassment. However, there is a different way of seeing what we are all watching unfold. As the United States has continuously fashioned itself as a bastion of democracy, the moral high ground it pursues on the global stage can only be achieved by the integrity of that democracy.

What separates the U.S. from other nations isn’t an intrinsic sense of heightened morality. We have many unresolved issues that still warrant both reconciliation and resolution. Our nation’s goodness does not rest with our leaders and does not wane with their human failings. Our commitment to being a nation of laws demands the integrity of our institutions. It demands that those institutions remain impartial, seek accountability and enforce those laws regardless of class or station. A former president facing accountability for alleged wrongdoing serves as the ultimate stress test for American democracy. It cannot be viewed as a sad day, but rather an indication that our systems are functioning as intended. Though that may not rise to the level of being celebrated, it is an important distinction which should engender a sense of pride within us all.