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U.S. Supreme Court shoots down Trump eligibility case from Colorado

People protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.
Jose Luis Magana/AP
FR159526 AP
People protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

Colorado Public Radio originally published the story at 8:06 AM on March 4, 2024. It was updated at 9:19 AM.

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Colorado ruling disqualifying former President Donald Trump from the GOP primary ballot on the grounds that he committed insurrection.

The high court ruled unanimously that the state’s judiciary overstepped and states have limited authority to decide who violates the insurrection clause.

"States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the Presidency," the Justices concluded. "The “patchwork” that would likely result from state enforcement would “sever the direct link that the Framers found so critical between the National Government and the people of the United States” as a whole.

The ruling means that votes cast for Trump in Colorado’s March 5th primary will be counted. And similar challenges to his eligibility in other states have likely lost their legal footing.

It also sets a precedent for how this section of the 14th Amendment can be applied in the future.

The portion of the constitution in question in this case, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, bars former elected officials from returning to office after they commit insurrection. It was drafted after the Civil War but has been little used since then.

With little judicial precedent, this case asked the justices to decide which government bodies have the right to enforce Section 3: Does the state court have the authority, or is it Congress’ responsibility to act?

Link: Read the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion

The Supreme Court presented a united front in concluding that the power is not in the hands of the states.

“This can hardly come as a surprise, given that the substantive provisions of the Amendment embody significant limitations on state authority,” they wrote. “The notion that the Constitution grants the States freer rein than Congress to decide how Section 3 should be enforced with respect to federal offices is simply implausible."

Former Republican state Sen. Norma Anderson brought Colorado’s case. The lawsuit was initiated by liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on behalf of six Colorado voters, including Anderson.

Anderson, 91, describes watching television news on Jan. 6, 2021, and being horrified as the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a group of people who wanted to halt Congressional proceedings and overturn the 2020 presidential election.

She told CPR News that she cried as she feared for the country’s future.

The Anderson respondents’ case stood before the court last month with virtually no precedents. Monday’s ruling comes the day before Super Tuesday, where voters in 16 states, including Colorado, will cast their ballots in the presidential primary.

Former state lawmaker and House Majority leader Norma Anderson, 90, poses for a portrait in her home.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Former state lawmaker and House Majority leader Norma Anderson, 90, poses for a portrait in her home.

Concurring opinions question breadth of majority opinion

The liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court, while agreeing with the opinion that Colorado overstepped its bounds, said in a concurrent opinion that they didn’t wholly agree with the strength of it.

They argued that while states can’t apply Section 3 to federal candidates, there was no need for the court to rule out other forms of enforcement.

“Although only an individual state’s action is at issue here, the majority opines on which federal actors can enforce Section 3 and how they must do so,” wrote Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson in a concurrent opinion. “We cannot join an opinion that decides momentous and difficult issues unnecessarily, and we therefore concur only in the judgment.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was appointed to the high court by former President Trump, filed her own concurring opinion, in which she followed a similar logic.

“The suit was brought by Colorado voters under state law in state court. It does not require us to address the complicated question whether federal legislation is the exclusive vehicle through which Section 3 can be enforced,” she wrote. “The majority’s choice of a different path leaves the remaining justices with a choice of how to respond. In my judgment, this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency.”

Justices had sharp questions about Coloradans’ claims

The court spent nearly three hours hearing the case on Feb. 8. Their questions made it clear from the start that the justices were almost uniformly wary of the idea that a state could act on its own to disqualify a presidential candidate this way.

“Is there any history of states using Section 3 as a way to bar federal office holders?” Justice Samuel Alito, part of the court’s conservative wing, asked Jonathan Mitchell, who argued for the Trump campaign.

“Not that I’m aware,” Mitchell replied.

Several justices worried that Section 3 could be weaponized against candidates whom a state’s political leaders didn’t agree with.

“Why should a single state get to decide who gets to be president of the United States?” asked Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court’s liberal members.

Jason Murray, the Denver-based lawyer who argued for Trump’s disqualification, tried to make the case that such concerns ignore the truly unprecedented nature of the former president’s efforts to stay in office.

“There's a reason Section 3 has been dormant for 150 years,” said Murray, “and it's because we haven't seen anything like January 6th since the Reconstruction. Insurrection against the Constitution is something extraordinary.”

Trump and allies celebrate ruling

Not long after the decision was released, Trump sent out a text message and fundraising alert blasting Democrats. “The unhinged Democrat plan to ERASE MY NAME crashed & burned, but our fight to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN is far from over,” he wrote.

Trump said Democrats are continuing to push endless witch hunts against him. “They STILL want to fine me, arrest me, and STOP ME FROM RUNNING!”

The Colorado Republican party also praised the decision while criticizing Democrats. GOP state party Chair Dave Williams called the case absurd and said the justices rightfully scrutinized Colorado's “unAmerican decision.”

“Voters can move on to determining this election at the ballot box in November, hopefully with all other challenges to President Trump's candidacy across the country coming to a close,” he wrote.

Williams noted the unity among the Justices and said the massive decision should serve as a rallying cry for all Americas “to defeat Joe Biden and the radical Democrats who tried to steal your right to vote by engaging in election interference against our Republican Party's presumptive nominee.”

However, Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics, CREW, which spearheaded the Colorado lawsuit, said the case should not be considered a win for Trump.

“Every court – or decision-making body – that has substantively examined the issue has determined that January 6th was an insurrection and Trump incited it,” posted the group on X.

“But crucially, the Court did *not* exonerate Trump of insurrection. They had the chance to do so and chose not to.”

Colorado’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jena Griswold, who spoke out in favor of Colorado’s decision to remove Trump from the primary, said she was glad there was a decision, noting that more than 400,000 voters have returned ballots for the GOP presidential primary.

This ruling is the culmination of a legal debate that started even before Trump left office

Articles about how the Insurrection Clause could apply to Trump started popping up almost immediately after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as historians and legal experts dusted off this rarely used provision as a potential route to punish Trump should impeachment fail.

Those theories started turning into legal filings last year as groups and individuals in various states attempted to use them to keep Trump off their ballots. On Sep. 6, Colorado jumped in, with six Republican and unaffiliated voters filing a lawsuit demanding Secretary of State Jena Griswold not certify Trump for Colorado’s primary ballot.

A liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, or CREW, in Washington, D.C., spearheaded the effort. CREW successfully used the same argument to block a county commissioner in New Mexico from holding public office after participating in Jan. 6.

After that victory, the organization started to approach people in Colorado.

The case got a five-day hearing in Denver District Court, in which the judge heard testimony about the history of the 14th Amendment and Trump’s role in Jan. 6. It was the only time any of the many challenges filed to Trump’s eligibility got a full court hearing.

At the time, Trump dismissed the idea that he could be barred under the 14th Amendment, writing in a post on Truth Social, “It is just another ‘trick’ being used by the Radical Left Communists, Marxists, and Fascists, to again steal an Election…”Ultimately, the state court judge in Denver agreed that Trump should remain on the ballot; Judge Sarah Wallace concluded that Trump did engage in insurrection but that it wasn’t clear that the Insurrection Clause applies to the presidency.

Colorado’s Supreme Court rejected that reasoning, concluding in a split 4-3 ruling that Section 3 does apply and disqualified Trump from participating in the GOP primary. However, because the case was still in progress when the deadline came to certify the primary ballot, the justices ordered the Secretary of State to include Trump’s name on it.

Presidential primary ballots were mailed to voters on Feb. 12. Today’s ruling gives those who chose the former president certainty that their votes will be counted.

CPR reporter Megan Verlee contributed to this story.

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