Rule of Law

A Presidents’ Day Reminder That Presidents Are Not Kings

The Colorado ballot case and Trump’s claim of presidential immunity are before the Supreme Court. At stake is nothing less than whether the president and the presidency are above the law.

This year, Presidents’ Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the American presidency and its role in our constitutional democracy.

It’s an especially auspicious time. The Supreme Court is considering two cases about whether the president is accountable to the law—or, as Donald Trump would have one believe, above it. According to Trump, the president is exempt from Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars insurrectionist officeholders from holding office, and the president is also immune from criminal prosecution. These arguments make a mockery of the Constitution.

The issue in the first case is Trump’s disqualification from the ballot under Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment, also known as the “Disqualification Clause.” It states that anyone “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” after taking an oath to support the Constitution is disqualified from holding office in the future unless Congress votes to remove the disqualification. The provision was ratified in the Civil War’s aftermath with former Confederate officers most immediately in mind, but its framers deliberately chose broad language to apply to future insurrections.

When a group of Colorado voters sued to remove Trump from the ballot on disqualification clause grounds, lawyers for the 45th president offered a shocking argument: The President is not an officer of the United States, and he didn’t take an oath to “support” the Constitution because the presidential oath—which requires the president to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution— does not use the word “support.”

As constitutional text and history experts, the Constitutional Accountability Center submitted an amicus brief to the Colorado Supreme Court explaining that Section Three applies to presidents. Our brief focused on the broad language in Section Three and demonstrated that when the provision was ratified in 1868, it would have been understood to include the president. Indeed, the idea that the framers of this Reconstruction provision would have allowed Jefferson Davis to be elected Commander in Chief of the United States defies both common sense and the historical record.

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the arguments in our brief, concluding that Section Three applies to presidents and the presidency. It also upheld the Colorado trial court’s determination that Trump engaged in “insurrection” through his actions related to the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Thus, the Court concluded Trump was disqualified and could not be on the ballot.

The United States Supreme Court is considering the question now. As our brief explains, if the justices follow the text and history of the Constitution, their decision should be straightforward: Trump is disqualified and cannot again hold the office of president. Indeed, at oral argument earlier this month, even Trump’s lawyer acknowledged that there is historical evidence from the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafting supporting the position of the Colorado ruling.

Second, the Supreme Court is considering Trump’s request to stay the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that he is not immune from criminal prosecution for his actions while in office. The oral argument at the D.C. Circuit demonstrated the troubling and unprecedented nature of his audacious immunity claim, which has no basis in constitutional text or history. Trump’s attorney, John Sauer, even went so far as to contend that a president could not be prosecuted for ordering SEAL Team 6 to kill a political rival unless the president was first impeached and convicted for that action. Trump’s position would leave presidential accountability solely to Congress’s impeachment process—a result that the Framers and ratifiers of the Constitution never intended. Indeed, under Trump’s position, if a president ordered this hit on a political rival and resigned before impeachment, he could evade accountability entirely. As the D.C. Circuit judges recognized, this result would be completely at odds with our system of government. The court’s unanimous opinion observed that it would be a “striking paradox if the President, who alone is vested with the constitutional duty to ‘take care that the Laws be faithfully executed,’ were the sole officer capable of defying those laws with impunity.”

In rejecting Trump’s claim of absolute immunity at the district court level, D.C. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote, “Presidents are not kings.” This fundamental principle is a cornerstone of our constitutional structure and democratic system. This Presidents’ Day, we honor our presidents by fighting for this principle and constitutional accountability.