The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday refused, for the time being, to rule on the constitutional claim that Donald Trump is barred from seeking election as President. The ruling, though, would allow him to be on the ballot for that state’s primary election next March 5, leaving open the question for the general election next November 5.
The primary election as run in Minnesota, the Court ruled, is only an internal event for the major political parties to help them decide on their nominee and it does not result in a final choice of any candidate in the national general election.
The Minnesota case is one of several in courts around the country against Trump’s candidacy, based on the theory that he engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the Constitution in an attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. That theory is based on a section of the 14th Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1868 but so far never applied to bar a presidential candidate.
The four-page court order, to be followed later with a full opinion, appeared to be without dissent. The court did not take a position on Trump’s constitutional eligibility to run in Minnesota’s general election about a year from now. It would be premature to decide it now and the general election is not imminent, the order said.
It explicitly allows the challengers to Trump’s candidacy to file a new case to try to bar him from next year’s general election. In an important part of the new ruling, the Court did decide that the voters who filed the case did have a right to go to court to pursue their challenge to Trump.
The decision is clearly a final one at least as to the March 5 primary, and thus may be open to an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, if Trump’s challengers choose to try that. The Supreme Court has authority to decide only final decisions by state courts, and only if those decisions raise a federal issue. Because Trump’s candidacy is challenged based on the U.S. Constitution, that could provide the federal link.
The challengers’ theory is broad enough, apparently, to include an argument that a state law that frees political parties to run the primaries as they see fit – including placing a disqualified candidate on that ballot — would itself be a violation of the 14th Amendment. Political parties are mostly private entities, but their operation of a state primary could be treated as an act by the state, subject to the Constitution.
Parties do have a constitutional right under the First Amendment (“freedom of association”) to operate the primary — as the two major ones do in Minnesota. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that a state would violate that right if it forced a party to allow any voter, member or not, to cast a ballot in its primary. In Minnesota, a voter must choose which party primary in which they will vote.
Trump will be a candidate of the Republican Party for the 2024 general election only if he wins the nomination at the GOP’s national convention next July. If the challengers wait until that point to renew their challenge in Minnesota, it may be too late to get the issue finally resolved before the voters go to the polls in November.
Other courts, though, are now considering this dispute, and could rule differently from the way the Minnesota court did. For example, a decision is expected before Thanksgiving by a state trial judge in Colorado.
The Minnesota court, explaining its ruling that the challenge to Trump was premature, wrote: “The [state] legislature enacted the presidential nomination primary process to allow major political parties to select delegates to the national conventions of those parties; at those conventions the selected delegates will cast votes along with delegates from all of the other states and territories and choose a presidential candidate who will subsequently appear on general election ballots.”
It added: “This is an internal party election to serve internal party purposes, and winning the presidential primary does not place the person on the general election ballot as a candidate for President of the United States.”