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Trump’s Indictment and Our Democracy

April 04, 2023

Prof. Claire Finkelstein discusses how this case is a test of America’s institutions, the rule of law, and the world’s oldest democracy.

At Penn Today, Claire Finkelstein, Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, recently discussed the potential impact of former President Trump’s indictment on our democracy. 

Finkelstein is the founder and faculty director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), a non-partisan interdisciplinary institute affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). She is a distinguished research fellow at APPC and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

From Penn Today:

Q: How is Trump’s indictment a test of the country’s institutions and the rule of law?

[Finkelstein:] The most fundamental principle of a democracy is that everyone is equal under the law. That is the principle that the Supreme Court affirmed in the case of Trump v. Vance in 2020 and the principle that it affirmed with respect to other presidents in the past. As in the cases of presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, the country once again faces a profound test of the rule of law.

The critical question the country now faces is not whether the former President, Donald Trump, is guilty or innocent of the charges brought by the Manhattan DA. The real question is whether the United States has the fortitude to hold a former president to the four corners of a required legal process in the same way that the country would hold any other citizen. In the present heated environment, it is not yet clear that Alvin Bragg’s office will be able to conduct a full and fair trial of Donald Trump based on the indictment. The challenges are many.

First and foremost, Trump has already been doing everything he can to obstruct the administration of justice and to interfere with the ability of the court to conduct an orderly trial, in a way that is not dissimilar to his interference with the certification of the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021. Second, some of Trump’s supporters who are members of Congress are claiming that Alvin Bragg’s office is weaponizing prosecutorial powers, and they are threatening to use their congressional powers to attempt to derail the prosecution by launching an investigation of the Manhattan DA. Third, even if Trump and his supporters do not succeed in derailing the process, it is not clear that Bragg will manage to stay the course, given the fact that his life has been repeatedly threatened, and that the Department of Justice has not to date indicated that it would back up the Manhattan DA against such threats. And finally, the case presents the first impression challenge of a highly publicized criminal trial where the defendant is also a candidate for president. He will now be under indictment and likely undergoing trial throughout much of his campaign and could conceivably end up completing that campaign from prison… . 

Read Finkelstein’s full interview at Penn Today.