On July 24, 1974, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Nixon, ordering President Richard Nixon to produce the Watergate tapes, the president turned to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, to understand what had just happened. He later recounted the exchange in his memoirs:
“Unanimous?” I guessed.
“Unanimous. There’s no air in it at all,” he said.
“None at all?” I asked.
“It’s tight as a drum.”
These words echoed through my mind today, nearly 50 years later, as I read the historic opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in United States v. Trump, holding that former President Donald Trump does not enjoy immunity from prosecution for any crimes he committed in attempting to end constitutional democracy in the United States.
The result was no surprise. As I said last month, no one who attended the oral argument could have believed Trump had any chance of prevailing. The question was timing: How long would an appeal delay Trump’s trial, originally scheduled for March 4? Many of us thought that the decision might come sooner, perhaps within days of the argument, given how quickly the court had scheduled briefing and argument. And by the end of last week, some commentators had, by their own reckoning, reached the “freakout stage” as to why the decision was taking so long.
They—and we—needn’t have worried. Issued exactly four weeks after the argument, the court’s decision came plenty fast. It’s not that often that you get a unanimous 57-page decision on novel questions of law in 28 days. And you almost never get an opinion of this quality in such a short period of time. I’ve read thousands of judicial opinions in my four decades as a law student and lawyer. Few have been as good as this one.
Unanimous. No air. Tight as a drum. The court’s per curiam opinion—per curiam meaning “for the court,” in that no individual judge authored it—is all that and more. It’s a masterful example of judicial craftsmanship on many levels. The opinion weaves together the factual context, the constitutional text, the judicial precedent, history, the parties’ concessions, and razor-sharp reasoning, with no modicum of judicial and rhetorical restraint, to produce an overwhelmingly cohesive, and inexorably convincing, whole. The opinion deserves a place in every constitutional-law casebook, and, most important—are you listening, members of the Supreme Court?—requires no further review. [Continue reading…]