An ethics watchdog on Wednesday sued to bar former President Donald Trump from the primary ballot in Colorado, arguing he is ineligible to run for the White House under a rarely used clause in the U.S. Constitution aimed at candidates who have supported an “insurrection.”
The lawsuit, citing the 14th Amendment, is likely the initial step in a legal challenge that seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court. The complaint was filed on behalf of six Republican and unaffiliated Colorado voters by the officially nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
It will jolt an already unsettled 2024 primary campaign that features the leading Republican candidate facing four separate criminal cases.
Liberal groups have demanded that states’ top election officials bar Trump under the clause that prohibits those who “engaged in an insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution from holding higher office. None has taken that step, looking for guidance from the courts on how to interpret a clause that has been used only a handful of times since the 1860s.
While a few fringe figures have filed thinly written lawsuits in a few states citing the clause, the litigation Wednesday was the first by an organization with significant legal resources. It may lead to similar challenges in other states, holding out the potential for conflicting rulings that would require the Supreme Court to settle.
Guidance for officials
Colorado’s secretary of state, Democrat Jena Griswold, said in a statement that she hoped “this case will provide guidance to election officials on Trump’s eligibility as a candidate for office.”
The lawsuit contends the case is clear, given the attempt by then-President Trump to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden and his support for the assault of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Republican has said he did nothing wrong in his actions.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, helped ensure civil rights for freed slaves, and eventually for all people in the United States. But it also was used to prevent former Confederate officials from becoming members of Congress after the Civil War and taking over the government against which they had just rebelled.
The clause cited in the lawsuit allows Congress to lift the ban, which it did in 1872 as the political will to continue to bar former Confederates dwindled. The provision was almost never used after that.
CREW and law professors of both parties contend the amendment is clear and is a qualification for president, just as the Constitution’s mandate that a candidate for the White House must be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen.
But others note there is much unsettled about the provision and that a case involving this issue has not reached the justices in Washington.
The clause cites a wide range of offices “under the United States” and states that the provision applies to, including “presidential electors” — but not the presidency itself. There is a debate among some experts about whether Trump’s acts constitute an “insurrection” under the language of the amendment.
Speedy resolution sought
In its complaint, CREW asked the court to expedite the matter so it can be resolved before the state’s primary ballot is set on January 5, 2024.
“We understand that there’s great interest in states across this country about this question, and it needs to be resolved expeditiously so there’s clarity,” said Donald Sherman, CREW’s chief counsel, told reporters in a teleconference.
A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.
The 14th Amendment was used last year to bar from office a New Mexico county commissioner who entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6. That was the first time it had been used in 100 years. In 1919, Congress refused to seat a socialist, contending he gave aid and comfort to the country’s enemies during World War I.
CREW said that it expected to file more cases in other states and that other groups might do so as well. It picked Colorado, its leaders said, because the state allows ballot challenges to go directly to court. It assembled a prominent roster of plaintiffs, including a former Republican leader of both houses of the legislature and a conservative columnist for the Denver Post.
There was another reason, Sherman noted: In 2015, a Guyana-born naturalized citizen lost his lawsuit to be included on the state’s presidential primary ballot, failing to convince a federal magistrate that the Constitution’s requirement that he be a natural-born citizen was unfair.
A federal appeals judge upheld that ruling barring him from the ballot. The judge was Neil Gorsuch, now on the U.S. Supreme Court.