Donald Crump, as a presidential candidate, is listed as a promoter of insurrection in 154 damning facts in a Colorado state judge’s opinion, issued last Friday. And yet, his candidacy escaped a constitutional ban and, for now, he is set to appear on that state’s primary election ballot next March 5.
How could that be? Hasn’t the U.S. Constitution, since the Civil War era, banned insurrectionists from ever running for public office?
The 14th Amendment does provide, in its Section 3, that no government officer who has taken an oath to defend the Constitution, then breaks that oath by rebelling against the basic document, is banned for life from any public office.
That seems plain enough. However, respected scholars and historians for months have vigorously debated various words or phrases in that text as they consider whether Trump is now disqualified from running for office for his role while President in trying to overturn his 2020 defeat.
For the first time, there is now a court interpretation of what that text means as it might affect Trump’s candidacy. The decision came Friday in a case in Colorado, Anderson v. Griswold.
True, it is only a ruling by one first-level court in one state, and it is being challenged on appeal, so Trump may or may not ultimately escape the ban after rulings by higher courts – maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even so, it is a decision that came after a full, five-day court trial, canvassing the entire story of Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and exploring the implications of that under the Constitution and under state law.
The 102-page opinion is an impressive example of judicial statecraft, especially for a rookie judge. It was published just two weeks after the last day the judge heard testimony.
It is the work of state District Judge Sarah B. Wallace of Denver. On the bench only since last January, she was formerly in private law practice, mainly in business-related law such as contracts and mortgages.
As cases like this one have been making their way through state courts in recent months, lawyers and judges have focused on a variety of unsettled issues. Here are some of those, and how Judge Wallace answered them – in each of these, deciding against Trump and in favor of the Colorado voters who challenged his candidacy:
- Is the constitutional ban still in effect, or did it apply only to those who had engaged in the Civil War? Judge Wallace: Still in effect.
- Do state officials or state courts have the power to enforce it? State courts do, the judge said.
- Do the political parties have a right to put candidates on the ballot even if they don’t meet constitutional qualifications? No, according to the judge.
- Are the words in the constitutional text to be interpreted broadly or narrowly? Broadly, the judge declared.
- What does “insurrection” mean? “Any public use of force…to prevent execution of law,” the judge found.
- Does it mean rebelling against the Constitution, or against the federal government? The Constitution, because insurrection is keyed by the 14th Amendment to the oath to defend the basic document, she ruled.
- Must a candidate have been convicted of a crime before being ruled as an insurrectionist? No, the judge said.
- Did Donald Trump engage in insurrection under the 14th Amendment? Yes, the judge concluded.
- If a candidate made speeches encouraging others to rebel, are those remarks protected by the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment? No; inciting an insurrection is not protected speech, under prior Supreme Court precedent, according to the judge.
In her ruling, Judge Wallace dealt with those questions over 35 pages, more than a third of the overall opinion.
There was one other unsettled question remaining for the judge, and she disposed of it in less than six pages of her ruling. If one had read her opinion from front to back, without knowing what the final outcome was, one might easily have concluded by page 95 that Trump’s candidacy was doomed in Colorado.
That is because much of the public discourse about the meaning of the 14th Amendment disqualification clause has focused on the concept of insurrection, and whether Trump had engaged in that, and Judge Wallace’s ruling was a devastating “yes.”
However, there was that final question: “Does Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to President Trump?” Judge Wallace’s answer: No.
Although she had ruled that the Constitution should be given a broad meaning on other points, on this one her decision was a narrow, rigidly literal interpretation of constitutional words.
She spelled out her answers in a hesitant way, commenting at one point that it would be “very troubling” to include the President with all of the other offices that are specifically mentioned, by title, in Section 3. She also expressed her “reluctance to embrace an interpretation which would disqualify a presidential candidate without a clear, unmistakable indication that such is the intent of Section III.”
Why did those who wrote that provision leave out specific mention of the Presidency, if they intended it to be included? She concluded that she was “unpersuaded that the drafters intended to include the highest office in the country in the catchall phrase ‘office…under the United States.’ “
Turning to whether Trump was covered by Section 3 because of the oath he took on becoming President (the one he allegedly violated), Judge Wallace relied on differing words in the presidential oath and in the oaths taken by all other federal officials and by a recital of other ways in which the Constitution’s words refer to the Presidency.
The final page of her opinion ordered state officials to put Trump on the ballot for next March 5’s primary election.
The challengers to Trump have noted that they will appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court on the part of the ruling favoring Trump; the process in that court is expected to be moved along quickly, perhaps setting the stage for the issue to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.