The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday's Georgia state indictment against Donald Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in that state includes charges similar to those in the recent federal indictment filed by special counsel Jack Smith. But it also breaks considerable new ground. To the extent that the charges deal with similar issues, Georgia is—in my view—well-justified in prosecuting Trump, for much the same reasons as the federal government is. But some of the charges raise technical legal issues I prefer to leave to commentators with greater relevant expertise.
Some of the charges against Trump and 18 other defendants in the Georgia indictment are similar to recently filed federal charges. For example, both feature charges of fraud related to Trump's scheme to replace Georgia's electors with slates of fake electors, and pressure state officials into falsifying vote counts. While some technical details diverge, there legal case against Trump on these issues is strong (see my discussion of the relevant federal issues here and here), and there is a strong rationale for prosecution based on the need for retribution and deterrence.
As in the federal case, the relevant Georgia fraud statutes (which focus on defrauding the government and election fraud) are not confined to property crimes. And, as in that case, Trump is not being prosecuted merely for claiming he won the election or that fraud occurred. Rather, the indictment details a long list of schemes to substitute fake electors for real ones and otherwise coerce and defraud state officials.
Some might wonder why state officials can prosecute Trump for much the same as crimes as the feds. After all, the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment bars defendants from being twice "put in jeopardy" for "the same offence." Part of the answer is that Trump has not yet been tried (much less convicted or acquitted) on the federal charges.
But in addition, the Supreme Court has long held that there is a "dual-sovereignty" exception to the double jeopardy clause—a rule recently reaffirmed by the Court in its 7-2 decision in Gamble v. United States (2019). Because states and the federal government are separate sovereigns, the Court reasoned, they are permitted to each try the same person for what is substantively the same offense.
In my view, there is a lot of merit to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's and Neil Gorsuch's dissenting opinions, in Gamble, arguing that the dual-sovereignty doctrine is wrong. But the Court is unlikely to overturn that rule anytime soon. Thus, Georgia and the feds can both prosecute Trump (and perhaps others) for similar election-related offenses. If Trump gets acquitted in one proceeding, that doesn't give him a pass on the other. Conservatives and others who don't like that can blame the Supreme Court.
Along with these similarities to the federal charges, there are also key differences. Many of the counts against Trump and other defendants are under Georgia's state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). I am sure there are lots of newly minted RICO experts commenting away on Twitter and elsewhere. But I'm not going to pretend to be one of them, and so will have to leave this issue to others.
There are a number of other Georgia-specific charges, as well, such as claims that some of Trump's co-conspirators illegally accessed state election data. I will leave that to relevant experts, as well.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the federal and Georgia indictments is that the latter features 19 defendants, while the former is limited to Trump (though the feds may well file charges against others in separate proceedings).
Some of the Georgia co-defendants are the same people as Trump's unindicted co-conspirators from the federal indictment, most notably Rudy Giuliani, Jeffrey Clark, John Eastman, and Sidney Powell. Others are lesser-known figures, including some whose involvement in election skullduggery appears to have been limited to Georgia. The inclusion of 19 total defendants is likely to make for a longer and more complicated trial and appellate process. Jack Smith may have chosen to charge Trump separately to avoid such problems.
If time permits, I may have more to say about some of Trump's co-defendants in future posts. One of them—Eastman—is a person I knew for many years in his capacity as a law professor; but I should emphasize (in case prosecutors are reading this!) that I have no inside knowledge of his involvement in Trump's schemes to overturn the election.
Experts are divided on whether Trump can potentially force the removal of the Georgia case to federal court. If he can do so, he might potentially get a more favorable jury pool, and also possibly claim immunity to some or all of the charges on the grounds that he was just engaged in his official duty. I highly doubt the latter gambit will work, even if the former succeeds. Trump was pretty obviously acting to advance his private interests as a candidate, not discharge his official responsibilities. But this too is an issue best left to those with greater expertise.
Finally, it's worth noting that the Georgia charges cannot be pardoned by the president, as they are state offenses, not federal ones. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp cannot pardon them either, as the pardon power in that state is controlled by an independent board, not the governor. And even the board cannot issue a pardon until after at least five years have passed since the applicant completed his sentence.
In sum, the Georgia case against Trump deepens his legal jeopardy, and at least some of the charges seem compelling. On others, I must defer to the assessment of commentators with greater expertise.