Former President Donald J. Trump immediately vowed to challenge the March 4 start date for his criminal trial over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, raising questions of whether or how he could try to push back the timing of the case.
“I will APPEAL!” Mr. Trump wrote on social media shortly after Judge Tanya S. Chutkan issued her order on Monday.
But despite complaining about the date, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, John Lauro, said in court that the defense team would abide by her decision “as we must.” Mr. Lauro had proposed the trial begin in April 2026, citing the volume of evidence defense lawyers needed to study, while prosecutors had suggested starting in January.
Here is a closer look.
Why is March 4 awkward?
The date comes in the middle of an already crammed calendar for Mr. Trump, who faces an array of criminal cases and civil lawsuits as he seeks the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
In particular, as Mr. Trump noted, the day after the trial would begin is Super Tuesday, when voters in over a dozen states will cast their primary votes. But no matter the negative headlines sure to emerge after the start of the trial, his ability to campaign for primaries in subsequent weeks is more likely to be affected than Super Tuesday.
That is because Mr. Trump will not be required to attend until opening statements begin. Even though the trial is set to start on March 4, a jury must first be selected — and interviewing prospective jurors as part of an effort to assemble an unbiased panel in such a high-profile and politically charged matter is almost certain to take days.
Are trial calendars even subject to appeal?
Typically, no, but there are complexities.
First, Mr. Lauro could file a motion asking Judge Chutkan to reconsider the timing and fleshing out his argument that March 4 does not give the defense enough time to adequately prepare.
But if she declines to change it, decisions by a Federal District Court judge over a prospective trial calendar are not usually considered subject to an immediate appeal. Instead, if a claimed problem can be remedied by later overturning any guilty verdict, an appeal raising that issue must wait until after the trial.
Indeed, if the former president is convicted, Mr. Lauro appears to be laying the groundwork for Mr. Trump to argue in an appeal after the trial that the start date violated his constitutional right to have meaningful legal representation. Mr. Lauro told the judge on Monday that the defense team would not be able to provide adequate representation to Mr. Trump if it had to be prepared by March 4. Such a trial date would deny his client the opportunity to have effective assistance of counsel, he added.
But Mr. Trump has another way to ask a higher court to review the calendar before the trial starts. It is called a petition for a writ of mandamus, and while it is not technically considered to be an appeal, legal experts say, it looks very similar.
What is a writ of mandamus?
It is a judicial order to a lower-court judge mandating some action. It functions as a safety release valve, allowing what are essentially early appeals. It is reserved for extraordinary situations where a judge has made a mistake that will cause a defendant irreparable harm, so the normal process of waiting until after any guilty verdict to raise the issue on appeal could not provide a remedy.
Thus, while Mr. Trump would normally have to wait until after the trial to ask a higher court to review Judge Chutkan’s calendar decision, his defense team could, in theory, try to short-circuit that process by filing a mandamus petition to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — or even directly to the Supreme Court.
Is it easy to win such an order?
No. In general, a mandamus petition is very likely to be denied, legal experts say. Higher courts, reluctant to disrupt the ordinary judicial process, have set a steep bar before they agree to intervene this way.
In a 1999 ruling, for example, the D.C. Circuit said it would not even consider a mandamus petition based on an argument that the trial judge had made a clearly wrong decision since the problem could be addressed later through an ordinary appeal.
“As we have seen, any error — even a clear one — could be corrected on appeal without irreparable harm,” the judges wrote.
In a 2004 ruling, the Supreme Court said the right to relief must be “clear and indisputable” and there must be no other adequate means to obtain it. And even then, it said, a higher court still has discretion to decline issuing such an order if it nevertheless believes that intervening would not be “appropriate under the circumstances.”
Does Trump have grounds for a mandamus petition?
By itself, the objection raised by Mr. Lauro — that March 4 will not give Mr. Trump’s lawyers adequate time to prepare — would almost certainly fall short as a reason for a higher court to intervene early, according to Paul F. Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor and specialist in criminal procedure.
But Prof. Rothstein said it was harder to predict what would happen if Mr. Trump’s team also raised an objection the former president has made in his public comments: that the trial date interferes with the election. There is a stronger argument for a claim of irreparable harm since various primaries will be over by the time of a verdict.
Still, there is scant precedent to guide a higher court’s decision about whether a trial date’s effect on an election is sufficient to consider intervening early. And even if so, he said, it is also uncertain where the higher court might land on whether the public interest is better served by delaying a trial or by letting it go forward so voters can know about a major candidate’s criminality as soon as possible.
“Like so many things with these unprecedented questions that the Trump cases present, the law does not have a definite answer,” Prof. Rothstein said.
Charlie Savage is a Washington-based national security and legal policy correspondent. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. His most recent book is “Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.” More about Charlie Savage
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