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Judge rejects Trump's "absolute immunity" claim in suit stemming from 2020 election

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Washington — A federal judge in Washington rejected former President Donald Trump's claim of absolute immunity in a civil lawsuit involving his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The opinion issued Monday from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan stemmed from a suit filed by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, NAACP and three Michigan voters, who together accused the former president and the Republican National Committee (RNC) of violating federal voting rights and civil rights law by conspiring to disenfranchise voters and keep Trump in office despite his electoral loss.

The groups asked Sullivan, who sits on the federal district court in Washington, to allow them to amend their complaint to address concerns regarding their claim under the Voting Rights Act and add new factual allegations regarding conduct by the RNC and Trump.

The party and Trump opposed the request, with the former president arguing in part that he has absolute immunity from damages for acts conducted within the "outer perimeter" of his official responsibility as president. Trump's lawyers told the court his actions surrounding the 2020 election were taken to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution."

Sullivan granted the request from the civil rights groups to file the amended complaint, issuing his 23-page opinion finding that Trump's conduct was "purely political" and fell outside the scope of the president's official duties.

"If Former President Trump disrupted the certification of the electoral vote count, as plaintiffs allege here, such actions would not constitute executive action in defense of the Constitution," Sullivan wrote. "For these reasons, the court concludes that Former President Trump is not immune from monetary damages in this suit."

Sullivan also rejected an argument from the RNC and Trump that the second amended complaint from the groups is futile, writing that the three individual plaintiffs live in Michigan, a state where they allege Trump has "repeatedly undertaken efforts" to disenfranchise voters.

"[T]he court concludes that plaintiffs' allegations support severe, substantial harm from Former President Trump's ongoing and continued efforts to intimidate officials, spread false claims of fraud, and imperil the right to vote," he said. "The court is also cognizant that the individual plaintiffs are Black voters who are particularly targeted by Former President Trump's baseless allegations of election fraud."

Sullivan continued: "The court concludes that plaintiffs have adequately alleged, for the purposes of the motion to amend, that the Trump defendants not only caused great harm to plaintiffs in the past but also pose a very substantial risk in the future to plaintiffs' fundamental right to vote."

Attorneys for Trump and the RNC did not immediately respond on Tuesday to requests for comment on Sullivan's decision.

The NAACP, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and three voters brought their suit against Trump in late November 2020, weeks after the presidential election and before the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. The groups accused the former president and the RNC of violating the Voting Rights Act and conspiring to interfere with civil rights. They asserted that Trump and the GOP conspired to prevent the counting of legally cast ballots, with the goal of intimidating election officials, disenfranchising and overturning the will of voters and ensuring Trump held the presidency despite losing to President Biden.

In April, the court granted a request from Trump and the RNC to dismiss the Voting Rights Act claim, after which the group sought to amend their complaint. In addition to seeking to address concerns about their claim under the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights groups also sought to add factual allegations regarding evidence that became available after their initial suit.

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