By Mike Scarcella
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. appeals court judges on Monday signaled skepticism toward a request by Donald Trump’s lawyers to overturn a gag order imposed on the former president in a federal criminal case accusing him of illegally trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit peppered Trump lawyer D. John Sauer with questions as he sought to convince them the ban imposes unreasonable restrictions on a defendant who is mounting a White House bid while facing multiple criminal and civil cases.
“The order is unprecedented and it sets a terrible precedent on future restrictions on core political speech,” Sauer said at a hearing in Washington.
Judge Cornelia Pillard asked Sauer why the public’s interest in a fair trial was not enough to justify the gag order.
“I also trust that you agree your client is not above the law,” Pillard said.
Pillard, like the other two judges hearing the appeal, is a Democratic judicial appointee.
The gag order allows Trump and his lawyers to criticize the U.S. Justice Department, but they are not allowed to target prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses. It has been suspended during Trump’s appeal. Trump has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the case, imposed the ban after she found that Trump’s public statements and social media posts could influence witnesses and lead to threats against lawyers and other public officials.
Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 U.S. election, has criticized the gag order as a constraint on his free speech rights.
A similar restriction in a separate civil business fraud case in New York was temporarily lifted by a state appeals court judge last week. Trump promptly resumed his attacks on a court clerk involved in the case.
In social media posts and presidential campaign appearances, Trump has said court officials and others involved in his legal woes are politically biased, leading to fears that they could face physical threats from his supporters.
The case is set to go to trial in Washington in March 2024, during the height of the Republican nominating contest. Opinion polls show Trump leading his Republican rivals by a wide margin.
Trump is charged with conspiring to interfere with the official tally of the 2020 presidential race, which he lost to Biden. Trump has accused Biden’s administration of weaponizing the U.S. legal system against him.
The indictment by U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith accuses Trump and his allies of promoting false claims the election was rigged, pressuring officials to alter the results and assembling fake slates of electors to try to wrest electoral votes from Biden.
Trump has also pleaded not guilty in three other criminal cases, including a Georgia case that also charges him with conspiring to overturn the election.
(Reporting by Mike Scarcella; writing by Andy Sullivan; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)
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