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

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People protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

Updated at 11:55 a.m. on Monday, March 4, 2024.

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

The high court ruled that the state’s lower court overstepped and that states in general have limited authority in deciding who violates the constitution’s Insurrection Clause. 

The Justices said that states may disqualify people who want to hold a state office, but that they have no authority under the Constitution to enforce Section 3, which outlaws former office holders from seeking another office if they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, against federal candidates.

"States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the Presidency," the Justices concluded in a group opinion. “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 marks the resolution of a tumultuous time in Colorado politics after the state supreme court issued the unprecedented decision to remove Trump from the primary ballot, using the scarcely used Civil War-era constitutional provision.

The decision means that votes cast for Trump in Colorado’s primary, for which ballots are due Tuesday, will be counted. And similar challenges to his eligibility in other states have likely lost their legal footing.

“Colorado can’t do this and really no other state can do this in the primary or general election,” said Derek Muller, a constitutional law expert and law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. He said the justices clearly had structural concerns about the Colorado decision and what it would mean for the country as a whole if one state were to bar a presidential candidate from running. 

“This was not a question for states to do piecemeal or patchwork,” he said.

For its decision, Colorado’s Supreme Court relied heavily on a 10th Circuit Court ruling about a naturalized citizen in Colorado who sued when he was kept off the presidential ballot for failing to meet the constitutional requirements for the office. Abdul Karim Hassan argued that the state law which barred his access violated the Fourteenth Amendment. 

In that case, which was heard by now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was then at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision concluded “it is a state’s legitimate interest” to protect the political process and exclude from the ballot candidates who are constitutionally prohibited from assuming office.

Colorado’s justices concluded that the same logic could apply to keeping someone who was involved in an insurrection off the ballot. But the high court, in its decision on Monday, didn’t even mention the Hassan case.

The justices did seem to try to set a more limited precedent for how this section of the 14th Amendment can be applied in the future.

“This can hardly come as a surprise, given that the substantive provisions of the Amendment embody significant limitations on state authority,” the opinion said. “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."

Colorado’s case was brought by a group of six Republican and unaffiliated voters, including  some high profile names including former Republican state Sen. Norma Anderson. The liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington spearheaded the effort. For them, Monday’s ruling was a disappointment.

“The U.S Supreme Court abrogated its responsibility toward democracy,” said Mario Nicolais, one of the attorney’s for the Colorado voters. “But that just simply means that the voters of this country need to take up the cry where the Supreme Court fell short.” 

While the highest court sided with Trump to keep his name on Colorado’s primary ballot, Nicolais said he doesn’t see the decision as an outright victory for the former president. 

“It's really important to point out they declined to weigh in on whether January 6th was an insurrection or whether Donald Trump engaged. They did everything in their power to avoid that question,” Nicolais added. “Look, the court was afraid to get in the middle of this.”

Meanwhile, Trump declared victory. 

His campaign 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. 

Monday’s ruling comes on the eve of Super Tuesday, where voters in 16 states, including Colorado, will cast their ballots in the presidential primary.  

The Anderson respondents’ case stood before the court last month with virtually no precedents.

Concurring opinions question breadth of majority opinion

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

The 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.”

Mark Graber, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland who has researched and written about Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, said the decision makes some sense as a matter of politics and policy, but not as an interpretation of the constitution.

“There is nothing in Section 3 that says candidates for state offices ought to be treated differently than candidates for federal offices and nothing in the history of Section 3 that suggests a distinction,” Graber said.

Nobody should interpret this as a textualist or originalist decision, he said.

“This is the court that talks textualism and originalism, and then abandons it when the court's policy preferences disagree,” Graber said.

Justices had sharp questions about Coloradans’ claims

Last month, during a nearly three hour hearing on the case, the justices’ questions made it clear from the start that they 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 on Feb. 8, in Washington, D.C.

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

Several justices worried aloud in oral arguments 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 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,” Murray said, “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; critics point out that it was limited

Trump used the decision as a chance to attack Democrats about his other legal issues in a fundraising pitch that went out minutes after the ruling came down. His opponents, Trump wrote, are continuing to push endless witch hunts against him. “They STILL want to fine me, arrest me, and STOP ME FROM RUNNING!” he wrote in the fundraising message. 

The Colorado Republican Party praised the ruling 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,” wrote GOP state party Chair Dave Williams in a statement. 

Williams noted the unity among the justices and said the decision should serve as a rallying cry for all Americans “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.”

Former state Rep. Norma Anderson, 91, agreed to be the lead plaintiff of this case after watching the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a group of people trying to halt Congressional proceedings and overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Anderson, who lives in Lakewood, told CPR News in an earlier interview that she cried as the violence unfolded, fearing for the country’s future. 

The national group that spearheaded Colorado’s lawsuit pointed out Monday that the high court specifically did not rule on whether Trump engaged in an insurrection. He faces federal charges for his role in the Jan. 6 attacks and could have a trial before the election.

“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 ballot, said she was glad there was a resolution to the case ahead of Tuesday’s presidential primary, noting that more than 400,000 voters have already returned ballots for the GOP contest. 

“I am disappointed in the decision,” Griswold said, noting that the court left the door open for Congress to disqualify Trump. “It's important that Coloradans and all American voters know whether Donald Trump is eligible to be on the ballot.”

She and other election officials had hoped a decision from the highest court would arrive a bit earlier than it did.

“But at the end of the day, it's good that it was issued today,” she said.

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.