Donald Trump’s fate and an obscure section of the Constitution collide at Supreme Court

From civil rights to privacy, the 14th Amendment has been a foundation for forging the norms of American law and democracy. But one of its provisions, adopted after the Civil War in 1868, has gotten almost no attention until now: That’s Section 3, the part that’s meant to keep former officeholders who “engaged in insurrection” from ever regaining power.

The Supreme Court on Thursday will be taking its first look at the insurrection clause in a case in which the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Former President Donald Trump is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But Republican and unaffiliated voters in Colorado argue that Trump is disqualified from being president again because he engaged in insurrection by trying to overturn his loss in the 2020 election, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Colorado case was one of several filed around the country seeking to block Trump from state ballots.

The voters say that if Trump can’t be President again, he shouldn’t be on the ballot, and the Colorado Supreme Court agreed in a first-of-its kind decision.

The case seems certain to bring on a collision of law and politics that the Supreme Court typically likes to avoid, but in this case, cannot ignore.

Trump appealed the Colorado ruling and that case will be argued on Thursday. The issue has come up elsewhere, but Colorado’s court is the only one to rule against the former President. Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State also has determined that Trump shouldn’t be on that state’s Primary ballot. Both the Maine and Colorado decisions are on hold pending the outcome in the Supreme Court.

The justices will be dealing with a handful of legal issues that include whether Trump did, in fact, engage in insurrection and whether the presidency is covered by the constitutional provision at issue.

Here is a look at the issues the court will confront:

Who decides?

There are several ways in which the court could avoid a definitive ruling, even though both sides say it’s vitally important for the court to make a final decision now about Trump’s eligibility for the ballot.

The justices could issue a ruling that applies only to Colorado or say the issue is not yet ripe for a decision.

They also could conclude that the political branches of government and voters, and not the court, should decide whether to put Trump on the ballot.

Trump’s attorneys raise the prospect of a national checkerboard of presidential elections if the issue is left to politicians, where some states’ leaders might allow voters to choose the likely Republican nominee and some might not.

Attorneys for the voters trying to remove Trump from the ballot argue that the question is too important to be left to politics. It’s one of following the plain language of the Constitution, which applies to everyone, regardless of how much political support they may have.

Still, there’s a way for the court to toss the question to one group of politicians that would work slightly differently.

Does Congress have a say?

Section 3 allows Congress to restore someone’s eligibility by a two-thirds vote. But it says nothing about whether Congress has to do anything at the start of the process, before states can start applying the provision.

In 1869, after many people were already barred from office under the measure, Salmon Chase, the then-chief justice of the United States, found that there has to be congressional legislation creating a process to find someone covered by Section 3. Chase was acting as an appellate judge in an era when justices “rode circuit” before the creation of federal appeals courts.

A few months earlier, though, Chase took the opposite position in a case involving Jefferson Davis. Chase’s contradictory assessments about Section 3, separated only by a few months, “are almost impossible to reconcile,” law professor Gerard Magliocca has written.

Trump’s attorneys and allies argue Congress needs to act, rather than leaving eligibility decisions to what they contend could be partisan courts. The attorneys seeking to disqualify Trump contend that Section 3 of the 14th amendment is just like its other provisions, ready to be applied without the need for additional legislation.

Some legal experts warn that kicking the fraught issue to a politically polarized Congress is perilous. It might mean the issue is not dealt with until Jan. 6, 2025, if Trump wins at the ballot box in November and Congress has to certify his election.

© Copyright by Extensive-Enterprises 2024. All rights reserved. Staff Login