Supreme Court rules states can’t kick Trump off the ballot

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday handed a sweeping win to former President Donald Trump by ruling that states cannot kick him off the ballot over his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — bringing a swift end to a case with huge implications for the 2024 election.

In an unsigned ruling with no dissents, the court reversed the Colorado Supreme Court, which had determined that Trump could not serve again as president under Section 3 of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The provision prohibits those who previously held government positions but later “engaged in insurrection” from running for various offices.

The court said the Colorado Supreme Court had wrongly assumed that states can determine whether a presidential candidate or other candidate for federal office is ineligible.

The ruling makes it clear that Congress, not states, has to set rules on how the 14th Amendment provision can be enforced against federal office-seekers. As such, the decision applies to all states, not just Colorado. States retain the power to bar people running for state office from appearing on the ballot under Section 3.

“Because the Constitution makes Congress, rather than the states, responsible for enforcing section 3 against all federal officeholders and candidates, we reverse,” the ruling said.

By deciding the case on that legal question, the court avoided any analysis or determination of whether Trump’s actions constituted an insurrection.

The decision comes just a day before the Colorado primary.

Minutes after the ruling, Trump hailed the decision in an all-capital-letters post on his social media site, writing, “Big win for America!!!”

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In addition to ensuring that Trump remains on the ballot in Colorado, the decision will end similar cases that have arisen. So far, only two other states, Maine and Illinois, followed Colorado’s path. Like the Colorado ruling, both those decisions were put on hold.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold registered “disappointment” with the decision in an interview with NBC’s Katy Tur on MSNBC.

“Ultimately, this decision … leaves open the door for Congress to act to pass authorizing legislation. But we know that Congress is a nearly non-functioning body, so ultimately, it will be up to the American voters to save our democracy in November,” she said.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows was quick to act after the ruling, 

“I hereby withdraw my determination that Mr. Trump’s primary petition is invalid,” she said in a statement, citing her obligation to follow the law.

The Supreme Court decision removes one avenue to holding Trump accountable for his role in challenging the 2020 election results, including his exhortation that his supporters should march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, when Congress was about to formalize Joe Biden’s win.

Trump is facing criminal charges for the same conduct. The Supreme Court in April will hear oral arguments on his broad claim of presidential immunity.

The ruling warned of the dangers of a patchwork of decisions around the country that could send elections into chaos if state officials had the freedom to determine who could appear on the ballot for president.

“The result could well be that a single candidate would be declared ineligible in some states, but not others, based on the same conduct,” the ruling said.

Although the bottom-line vote was unanimous, there were some divisions on the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, as to how the case was resolved. The three liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — complained in a jointly written concurring opinion that the court had decided more than it needed to by laying out how Section 3 could be enforced by Congress.

They said the decision could “insulate” Trump from “future controversy,” adding that the ruling “shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement” of section 3.

Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett agreed that the court went further than required, although she did not join the liberal justices’ opinion.

Barrett said although she had some disagreements with the rationale, the liberals should not “amplify disagreement” in such a politically charged case.

“All nine justices agree on the outcome of this case. That is the message Americans should take home,” she added.

The Colorado court based its Dec. 19 ruling on Section 3, which was enacted after the Civil War to prevent former Confederates from returning to power in the U.S. government.

The case raised several novel legal issues, including whether the language applies to candidates for president and who gets to decide whether someone engaged in an insurrection.

The state high court’s decision reversed a lower court’s ruling in which a judge said that Trump had engaged in insurrection by inciting the Jan. 6 riot but that presidents are not subject to the insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment because they are not an “officer of the United States.”

Trump and his allies raised that point, as well as other arguments that the 14th Amendment cannot be applied. They also argued that Jan. 6 was not an insurrection.

Republicans, including Trump’s primary opponents, broadly supported his claim that any attempt to kick him off the ballot is a form of partisan election interference. Some Democrats including California Gov. Gavin Newsom have also expressed unease about the 14th Amendment provision being used as a partisan weapon.

The initial lawsuit was filed on behalf of six Colorado voters by the left-leaning government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and two law firms.

They alleged in court papers that Trump “intentionally organized and incited a violent mob to attack the United States Capitol in a desperate attempt to prevent the counting of electoral votes cast against him.”

Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s president, focused on the silver lining after the ruling, saying that the court “had the opportunity to exonerate Donald Trump for engaging in insurrection, and they did not do that.”

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