Rule of Law

Enforcing the Insurrection Clause Against Trump Strengthens Our Democracy | Opinion

State courts in Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, and Colorado have been called on to grapple with voter challenges to Donald Trump‘s eligibility to appear on primary ballots. The voters assert that Donald Trump’s actions surrounding the events of January 6, 2021 prevent him from holding office pursuant to Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution—the Disqualification Clause, which disqualifies from office any individual who took an oath to support the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same”—and that he is therefore ineligible to appear on ballots.

In Colorado, a trial court meticulously evaluated the evidence and arguments on both sides and concluded that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, were an insurrection and that former President Donald Trump engaged in it, but failed to rule for the voters on some questions of law about the provision’s applicability to presidents and the presidency. The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral argument in an appeal of this case, Anderson v. Griswold, mere days ago.

But while state courts resolve the legal issues, they also contend with concerns that there might be something undemocratic about courts enforcing Section Three of the 14th Amendment, or that this constitutional accountability will stoke political violence. These concerns are no reason for state courts to ignore the plain text of the Constitution.

Enforcing the Disqualification Clause is not antidemocratic. Our Constitution does not leave presidential eligibility entirely to voters. For instance, candidates who fail to meet the age requirements (“thirty five”) or citizenship requirements (“natural born Citizen”) contained in Article II, Section 1, are ineligible for the presidency no matter how popular they might be with voters. No good argument exists for ignoring Section 1 of Article II to allow voters to decide, just as no good argument exists for ignoring Section Three of the 14th Amendment. And that concern also ignores the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment was itself democratically enacted by the stringent standards set forth for amending the Constitution—passed by 2/3 margins in both the U.S. Senate and House, and then ratified by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states. The democratic political process shaped the consideration and adoption of the 14th Amendment, just as it has for other constitutional amendments.

The framers of the Disqualification Clause also established a path for removing a disqualification through the political process. If someone is disqualified from serving in public office, Congress may, by a 2/3 margin in each chamber, remove this disqualification. So, courts can and should enforce the Disqualification Clause, just as they have done in the past, reassured that the Constitution also lays out a path for congressional action later. If Congress wants to absolve Trump for engagement in insurrection, it can do so. This is not theoretical. In the late 1800s, Congress shamefully removed the disqualification of those who took up arms against our nation in at least two separate Confederate amnesty acts. If Congress wants to act, it can, but that is not a reason for courts to abdicate their responsibility for constitutional accountability.

Some worry that a ruling removing Trump from ballots might stoke violent reactions from Trump supporters. The threat of political violence is real, and a violent MAGA faction has shown its potential for violence numerous times (including on Jan. 6), but that is reason for courts to enforce the Disqualification Clause, not to ignore it. The framers of this provision were so concerned about political violence—and the destabilizing effects to our democracy of allowing insurrectionist officers to serve—that they crafted a lifetime disqualification that applies to all offices, whether state or federal. In the events on and leading up to Jan. 6, individuals used deception, coercion, and violence in a nearly successful attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. And the Colorado trial court found, “based on the testimony and documentary evidence presented, that Trump’s conduct and words were the factual cause of, and a substantial contributing factor to, the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol.” Failing to hold Trump accountable tacitly blesses this insurrectionist conduct and could embolden future officers to deploy violence to thwart the will of the electorate.

State courts have an important task before them. They should follow the facts and the law in these ballot challenge cases, confident that a “state’s legitimate interest in protecting the integrity and practical functioning of the political process permits it to exclude from the ballot candidates who are constitutionally prohibited from assuming office,” as then-Judge Neil Gorsuch ruled in 2012 in Hassan v. Colorado, a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals case. State courts should also be assured that enforcing Section Three of the 14th Amendment displays a respect for democratic principles and an acknowledgment of the dangers of political violence, not the opposite. Judges should heed the warning of legal scholar Sherrilyn Ifill, who notes that when judges in the past hesitated to give full force and effect to the 14th Amendment’s provisions, it “effectively derailed our Democracy’s promise.” We can’t afford to repeat these mistakes. The American people deserve better.