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SCOTUS to states: Unblock Trump

The justices say their ruling will prevent chaos in elections

From left: Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Elena Kagan Getty Images/Photo by Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

SCOTUS to states: Unblock Trump

The day before Colorado voters head to the primary polls, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a controversial state ruling that would have disqualified former President Donald Trump as a candidate. In a unanimous ruling that will end similar challenges across the country, the justices declared that the Colorado Supreme Court exceeded its authority.

“Particularly in this circumstance, writings on the court should turn the national temperature down, not up,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in a concurring opinion. “For present purposes, our differences are far less important than our unanimity: All nine justices agree on the outcome of this case. That is the message Americans should take home.”

While the justices agreed that Colorado cannot remove candidates for federal office from state ballots, they disagreed about which entity does have the authority to do so. Five of the justices wrote that the authority rests solely with Congress, while the rest believed that other avenues exist for kicking insurrectionists off the ballot. The ruling automatically invalidates similar ballot removals in Maine and Illinois, both states that will hold GOP primaries this month.

The Reconstruction-era Congress ratified the 14th Amendment in 1868. Section 3 of the amendment, known as the insurrection clause, is one of the few clauses of the U.S. Constitution that limits state sovereignty. It says that people who have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States cannot hold political office. States may choose their own qualifications for candidates vying for state-level elected positions, but one state may not block a candidate for federal office.

A group of Colorado voters working with the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued to keep Trump off the Colorado ballot, arguing he participated in an insurrection during the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. The Colorado Supreme Court decided against Trump, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that allowing one state to take such an action would plunge the nation’s elections into chaos.

The high court justices relied heavily on historical precedent. When the United States ratified the 14th Amendment, states immediately used their new authority to oust Confederates from state legislatures and offices. Since that time, it has never been used against elected officials or candidates in federal seats, a fact that raised a red flag for the high court.

“Such a lack of historical precedent is generally a ‘telling indication’ of a ‘severe constitutional problem’ with the asserted power,” the majority opinion stated.

“History is doing a fair bit of work here,” said Jack Fitzhenry, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “In some ways, that’s a byproduct of the fact that we have a generally originalist-leaning Supreme Court. Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson during arguments zeroed in on ratification era evidence and original understandings. The case citations are not all election cases. Some of them just contain basic fundamental propositions about federalism.”

The five-justice majority went a step further, ruling that not only does Colorado not have the authority to enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, but also Congress is the only entity that can, according to Section 5.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Jackson joined in dissenting against the Section 5 argument but affirmed the overall ruling against Colorado.

“To allow Colorado to take a presidential candidate off the ballot under Section 3 would imperil the framers’ vision of ‘a federal government directly responsible to the people,’” they wrote in a partial dissent. “Although we agree that Colorado cannot enforce Section 3, we protest the majority’s effort to use this case to define the limits of federal enforcement of that provision. … In doing so, the majority shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement.”

Cato Institute scholar Anastasia Boden said those means could include federal courts in addition to Congress.

“Under the majority opinion, avowed and blatant insurrectionists can get to the highest office of the land, and no one other than our dysfunctional Congress can do anything about it,” Boden told WORLD in an email. “Judges have a role to play in enforcing our Constitution, and it seems to me they, too, should be able to enforce Section 3 even in the absence of congressional action.”

The benefit of relying on Congress, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Fitzhenry, is that Section 5 includes a “congruence and proportionality” test that prevents lawmakers from arbitrarily ousting candidates.

“Congress needs to make some kind of fact-finding in its investigations, but there’s no law that says the states are bound by this requirement.” Fitzhenry told WORLD. “If you accepted the argument of the Colorado voters, you would then have to believe that the states are somehow free to enforce the 14th Amendment in a way that the federal government is not.”

The nonprofit that originally sued expressed disappointment that the justices sidestepped the insurrection question.

“While the Supreme Court allowed Donald Trump back on the ballot on technical legal grounds, this was in no way a win for Trump,” Noah Bookbinder, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court had the opportunity in this case to exonerate Trump, and they chose not to do so. Every court—or decision-making body—that has substantively examined the issue has determined that January 6th was an insurrection and that Donald Trump incited it.”

Speaking from Mar-a-Lago on Monday afternoon, Trump called the Supreme Court’s decision “well-crafted.”

“I think it will go a long way toward bringing our country together, which our country needs,” he said. “The voters could take someone out of the race very quickly, but a court shouldn’t be doing that, and the Supreme Court saw that very well.”

In Colorado, Republican state Rep. Gabe Evans said he appreciated the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in. His office received several calls from constituents after the state Supreme Court removed Trump from the ballot, a move Evans called leftist activism that was “out of touch” with most Coloradans.

“The Supreme Court was really that federal check that the activism in Colorado does not dictate national policy,” he said. “This decision is acknowledging that Colorado is intentionally and aggressively adopting an activist approach. And the Supreme Court is putting the brakes on that right here, right now.”

WORLD’s Leo Briceno contributed to this report.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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