Pennsylvania judge rules Trump had immunity only in civil case | Fact check

Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Windham High School in Windham, New Hampshire, on August 8, 2023.
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The claim: A Pennsylvania judge ruled that Donald Trump has ‘absolute immunity' from prosecution

An Aug. 22 Facebook video (direct link, archive link) contends that former President Donald Trump’s legal battles should be over.

“A Pennsylvania judge has just ruled that President Trump cannot be sued or indicted precisely because of the protection provided to him by presidential immunity,” says Steve Turley, a conservative commentator who initially posted the video to YouTube on Aug. 20. He also describes the protection as “absolute immunity."

The post was shared more than 700 times in two days on Facebook.

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Our rating: False

Legal experts say the ruling in question applies only to civil liability for actions by a president as part of his official duties and does not provide or call for immunity from criminal prosecution. The ruling is also not binding to courts in other states or federal courts.

Ruling does not say it applies to criminal prosecution

Trump is facing a half-dozen criminal and civil trials in the next year.

The video builds its claim of immunity for Trump largely around a July 31 ruling in a civil case in Pennsylvania, but it misinterprets and misrepresents the actual ruling, said Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

James Savage, an election worker in suburban Philadelphia, sued Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others over statements they made asserting election fraud. He said they defamed him, and their words led to two heart attacks and multiple death threats against him. Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael Erdos ruled that the statements were made as part of Trump’s official duties, finding that the president at the time was speaking about a matter of public concern, and he could not be sued over those remarks.

Finkelstein, who has written about the legal issues Trump faces, noted that the ruling specifically said it applied only to civil liability for the specific claims in the case from Trump’s time in office.

“Other legal proceedings may examine the propriety of his statements and actions while he was the president and whether, as the plaintiffs in this and other cases contend, it was this conduct which served as the actual threat to our democracy,” Erdos wrote.

Finkelstein said the ruling in effect said there was immunity from civil liability if the president was acting in an official capacity. But it did not touch on criminal prosecution. What constitutes “official capacity” will also be argued in the courts as Trump’s cases move ahead.

Turley’s video includes a clip of lawyer David Rivkin on Fox News making the case for Trump having immunity from criminal prosecution, although the attorney does not bring up Erdos’ ruling in the excerpt.

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Craig Green, a law professor at Temple University, offered a similar analysis to Finkelstein. He pointed out that a footnote in the ruling says “immunity from liability in a civil matter does not bar impeachment and criminal prosecution as other possible sanctions.”

“This is about civil liability. Not criminal,” Green said, adding that a state court ruling in Pennsylvania would not be binding to other states or federal courts.

In the video, Turley references the Nixon v. Fitzgerald ruling by the Supreme Court, but Green noted that ruling also only addressed civil liability in the firing of a government employee, not immunity from criminal prosecution.

USA TODAY reached out to Turley and the social media user who shared his video for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump immunity ruling only for civil case, not criminal | Fact check