US Politics

US supreme court appears skeptical of Colorado ruling removing Trump from ballot

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
February 8, 2024 at 13:10
Donald Trump campaigns in New Hampshire on 17 January. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP
Donald Trump campaigns in New Hampshire on 17 January. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Colorado supreme court ruled the ex-president ineligible to run for office for inciting insurrection under the 14th amendment

The US supreme court appeared skeptical of a Colorado decision removing Donald Trump from the state’s primary ballot during nearly two hours of oral arguments on Thursday. It seems poised to rule Trump is not constitutionally disqualified from running for president.

A majority of justices, including some from the court’s liberal wing, voiced concern about the chaos that would ensue if they allowed states to decide whether to disqualify candidates from the ballot.

“What do you do with the, what would seem to be, the big plain consequences of your position? If Colorado’s position is upheld, surely there will be disqualification proceedings on the other side and some of those will succeed,” the chief justice, John Roberts, asked Jason Murray, the lawyer who argued on behalf of the Colorado voters.

“I would expect that a goodly number of states will say whoever the Democratic candidate is, you’re off the ballot, and others, for the Republican candidate, you’re off the ballot. It will come down to just a handful of states that are going to decide the presidential election. That’s a pretty daunting consequence,” Roberts added.

The case, Donald J Trump v Norma Anderson et al, came about after six Colorado voters filed a lawsuit last year alleging Trump was ineligible to run for president under a little-used provision of the constitution’s 14th amendment. The provision says that any member of Congress or officer of the United States who takes an oath to defend the constitution and then subsequently engages in insurrection is barred from holding office. The ban can only be overridden by a two-thirds vote by both chambers of Congress.

Trump’s conduct during the January 6 Capitol attack disqualifies him from holding federal office, the Colorado voters claimed in their suit, filed last year in state court. After a five-day trial, a judge found Trump had engaged in insurrection, but was not an “officer of the United States” and declined to remove him from the ballot. In a 4-3 decision in December, the Colorado supreme court reversed that ruling and barred him from the ballot. The supreme court agreed to hear the case in January.

While there have been several suits seeking to remove Trump from the ballot, only Colorado and Maine have done so thus far. A Maine judge last month ordered the secretary of state there to hold off on excluding Trump until the US supreme court issued a decision.

A decision upholding the Colorado supreme court’s ruling would not automatically remove Trump from the ballot across the country. While some states have rebuffed efforts to remove Trump from the primary ballot, a supreme court saying Trump can be disqualified would probably set off a flurry of fast challenges in state courts and other tribunals to disqualify him from the ballot in the general election.

It is generally believed that Trump has the upper hand at the court, where conservatives have a 6-3 supermajority and Trump nominated three of the justices. Still, experts say there is a high degree of uncertainty over what exactly the court will do because it has chosen not to limit the scope of arguments before it and the issues are so unprecedented.

In their briefing to the supreme court, Trump’s lawyers have claimed there will be “chaos and bedlam” in the US if a leading presidential candidate is blocked from the ballot. They gave an array of arguments to the justices for why he should not be disqualified, including that the word “officer” does not apply to the president and that he did not engage in insurrection.

“In our system of ‘government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people’, the American people – not courts or election officials – should choose the next President of the United States,” Trump’s lawyers wrote.

The Colorado voters, backed by the left-leaning non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew), argue that it is absurd to claim the 14th amendment does not apply to the presidency and that it would be a danger to democracy to allow him to hold office again.

“Section 3 is designed precisely to avoid giving oath-breaking insurrectionists like Trump the power to unleash such mayhem again,” they write. “Nobody, not even a former President, is above the law.”

There is no legal precedent for the case – the justices will be wrestling with the key issues in the case, including whether Trump committed insurrection on January 6 for the first time. The 14th amendment was enacted after the civil war to bar former Confederates from holding office and has never been used to bar a presidential candidate. In 2022, the amendment was used to remove a New Mexico county commissioner from office, the first time it had been used that way in a century.

The case marks the court’s most direct intervention in a presidential election since its controversial decision in Bush v Gore in 2000. Seeking to preserve its reputation as an apolitical body, the court is usually hesitant to get involved in heated political disputes, but the arrival of the Trump case makes the court’s intervention in the most controversial of political cases unavoidable. It comes as public confidence in the court continues to decline amid a series of ethics scandals and politically charged decisions.

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Betsy Reed, Editor Headshot for Guardian US Epic
Betsy Reed
Editor, Guardian US


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