In a significant setback for the multi-state campaign to bar Donald Trump from again seeking the Presidency, a state judge in Colorado ruled on Friday that he is not covered by a constitutional ban.
That ruling has added importance because it came after the first full trial in any court on the constitutional dispute surrounding Trump’s candidacy.
The judge did rule, on another part of the dispute, that Trump had engaged in an illegal insurrection in seeking to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election. Trump, the opinion said, “acted with specific intent to incite political violence and direct it at the Capitol with the purpose of disrupting the electoral certification” on January 6, 2021.
That marked the first time in U.S. history that a president had been declared by a court to be the promoter of an effort to overturn constitutional government. However, that was not enough to disqualify Trump, the judge ruled.
State District Judge Sarah B. Wallace of Denver, in a 102-page opinion, ordered state officials to put Trump’s name on the Colorado ballot for the primary election next March 5.
The liberal organization that filed the case, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, promptly announced that it will take the case on to the Colorado Supreme Court. “Today was not the end of this effort, but another step along the way,” it said.
This decision marked the third time in the past two weeks that Trump’s challengers had failed to persuade a court that the Constitution’s Civil War era 14th Amendment disqualified Trump from holding any government office because of his role in the January 6 violent attack on the Capitol and events surrounding that incident.
Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars designated officials from ever holding an office, at any level of government, if they had previously taken an oath to defend the Constitution, and had then violated that oath by engaging in an insurrection or rebellion.
Judge Wallace’s opinion ruled against Trump on all parts of that provision except whether those who wrote that clause intended to apply it to presidents, too. The judge hesitated to rule that it did apply, saying the evidence from history was not clear enough.
The judge did not reach that point in her opinion until page 100, after the preceding pages told a devastating story about Trump’s “history of courting extremists and endorsing political violence as legitimate and proper.”
At some point, one or more of the state cases against Trump could reach the U.S. Supreme Court to sort out the constitutional controversy. At this point, it is unclear whether the dispute will be settled in a final way before the presidential election next November. It might not come even until after Trump may have emerged as the favorite to be the Republican Party’s nominee in 2024. Repeated polls show him far ahead of his GOP rivals.
The Colorado judge ruled that the state’s Secretary of State, the top official on election policy, did not have the authority to enforce the 14th Amendment ban on insurrectionist candidates, but that the state courts do have that power.
The challengers actually won on several key points in the running controversy over that Amendment’s meaning and scope. The judge ruled that the ban was still in effect, and thus was not limited to those who had engaged in the Civil War, declared that the provision was to be given a broad interpretation, said the ban did not depend upon an officer having first been convicted of a crime, adopted an expansive meaning for “insurrection,” and concluded that Trump was not protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment free speech clause for calling on his followers to attack the Capitol.
Those sweeping legal findings could narrow the coming appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court to the key question of whether the Amendment did, or did not, apply to presidents. Trump’s team, of course, can challenge on appeal all of the parts of the ruling that went against him.
For purposes of political campaigning, Judge Wallace’s legal conclusions against Trump and the 154 factual findings against him could be factors that might persuade some major political donors to abandon Trump or persuade some prominent political figures not to endorse his candidacy.