Keeping Trump Off the Ballot? Judges Enter Uncharted Territory

Maggie Zeiger

On November 17th, 2023, history was made in a Colorado courtroom. Judge Sarah B. Wallace ruled that Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars those who have incited insurrections from holding office in the United States, did not apply to Donald Trump. The Fourteenth Amendment, though better known for extending equal protection to all citizens, includes a provision that bars someone “who has engaged in insurrection or rebellion, or given aid or comfort to the enemies after taking an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution” from being an “officer of the United States.” This section of the Fourteenth Amendment was originally intended to keep Confederates from holding office but is taking on new meaning as legal teams fight over its power to influence the 2024 elections. Though seemingly clear cut—someone who has engaged in or aided an insurrection cannot hold civil or military office—the text of the amendment has raised doubts about whether it precludes a US president, having engaged in insurrection, from holding office. This uncertainty has led to a slew of court cases in a variety of different states such as Michigan, Colorado, and Minnesota. Judges in each state have been tasked with determining whether Donald Trump can remain on the presidential ticket. 

Out of the three states, Minnesota was the first to hear a case regarding Former President Trump and the Fourteenth Amendment. On Wednesday, November 8th, the Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed the petition that sought to disqualify Trump from reclaiming the Oval Office.  However, the Minnesotan high court did not rule on the “constitutional merit” of the petitioner’s case. The justices instead ruled that election officials and the court do not have the authority to stop the Republican Party from offering Mr. Trump as a candidate in the primaries. As there is no law in Minnesota prohibiting a political party from putting a constitutionally ineligible candidate on the ballot, the Minnesota Justices were able to sidestep ruling on Trump’s involvement in the insurrection, leaving that decision to a future case or to a higher court. 

Unlike in Minnesota, a Michigan judge did rule on Trump’s ability to run for office. The judge dismissed a lawsuit arguing that Trump should be kept off of the presidential ballot, and in a separate opinion, he ruled that Michigan’s Secretary of State does not have the power to determine Mr. Trump’s eligibility for office. This ruling was met with an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court by the petitioners—a liberal group called Free Speech for People. The Michigan Supreme Court responded by delegating the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals. In their order, they argued that the court “is not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court before consideration by the Court of Appeals.” The order was issued a week ago, and it is still unclear when oral arguments will proceed. 

The most recent ruling on Trump’s election eligibility came on November 17th in Colorado. Judge Sarah B. Wallace took a different approach than her fellow jurists, ruling that Colorado cannot remove Donald Trump from the ballot because Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment did not explicitly bar those who have engaged in or incited insurrection from taking the presidential oath. While not the outcome the petitioners were looking for, Judge Wallace did rule that Trump “incited insurrection through his actions on January 6th.” It was the first time a court has found that a president engaged in insurrection. The six Colorado voters—who were either Republicans or unaffiliated with a party—that filed the lawsuit have appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, where oral arguments were held on December 6th. As of December 13th, 2023, no opinion has been announced. Many legal analysts, however, believe that the justices may remove Trump from the ballot, as all seven were appointed by Democratic governors

The legal battle over election eligibility is in full swing in many states. As the 2024 primaries near, more state officials are getting involved—including the Ohio and Wyoming secretaries of state who both issued statements backing Mr. Trump. While lawsuits and petitions may rage for the next couple of months, the decision will likely fall to the Supreme Court in the near future, potentially changing the landscape of the 2024 election.  

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