The historic court case in Colorado on the future of Donald Trump’s run for President is on a fast track, but will it be decided soon enough? Among several cases around the country on the question, this one appears most likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court first.
Just three days after a lower state court judge in Denver ruled that Trump must be put on the Colorado primary election ballot even though he violated the Constitution by trying to undo his 2020 election defeat, both the six Colorado voters leading the challenge to Trump and Trump himself filed separate appeals in the state’s Supreme Court.
That court was told that not only its ruling but also any appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court have to be finished by no later than January 5 – less than six weeks from now. Judicial processes can move that fast, but only if everyone rushes.
Under Colorado state law, next January 5 is the deadline for Secretary of State Jena Griswold to officially certify who is going to be on the ballot for the primary election, scheduled for March 5.
On Tuesday, one day after both sides filed their applications to appeal, the state Supreme Court agreed to decide both appeals and then set a highly expedited schedule. All written briefs must be filed no later than December 4, and a hearing – limited to two hours – was set for two days after that, December 6. The court said it would not agree to expand that time, and expects only one lawyer to argue on each side.
In a filing on Monday, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the group representing the six voters, asked the court to expedite “all matters…due to the impending deadlines, the likelihood of further appeal, and scheduling difficulties surrounding the upcoming holidays.”
Among other requests, that group suggested that the court’s normal limits on written legal briefs not be expanded, and that all briefs be due on an “expedited timeline.” That immediately contrasted with the approach of Trump’s lawyers, who said in their filing Monday that they would need more lengthy briefs than normal, filed on a schedule that would allow “full discussion of the issues.” (In Tuesday’s order by the state Supreme Court, it limited the length of briefs to thousands of words less than the Trump team had asked.)
The two sides’ different approaches to how the case should proceed stem from the simple reality that the challengers are raising only a single legal issue in their appeal, while Trump’s team listed 11 issues on their side of the case.
In the state trial court decision released last Friday, the judge ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s ban (in the 14th Amendment) on election candidates who engaged in insurrection against the Constitution does not apply to the Presidency. That was the only part of the judge’s ruling that went in Trump’s favor, but that would be enough to put him on the primary ballot if that decision ultimately stands.
Trump’s appeal is contesting every other part of the trial judge’s ruling, along with some additional issues that his lawyers believe to be at stake. Their filing listed these questions:
- Did the judge lack power to decide constitutional questions, to rule on candidate qualifications, and to rule that Trump engaged in insurrection? Must Congress give state courts the power to decide such issues? Is presidential qualification a political issue, beyond all courts’ power?
- Did the trial court wrongly define insurrection and incitement of violence, wrongly reject Trump’s First Amendment free-speech rights, and wrongly second-guess Trump’s actions in failing to summon the military to stop the insurrection on January 6, 2021?
- Did the judge apply too loose a legal standard of proof of Trump’s actions? Did the judge wrongly rely on the conclusions, said to be biased against Trump, of the special congressional committee that investigated the January 6 attack on the Capitol?
The trial judge’s opinion, besides ruling against Trump on most of those issues, had a lengthy separate section listing the judge’s factual conclusions about Trump’s actions, before January 6, that day, and afterward. If the Colorado Supreme Court follows the usual procedure in judging a case on appeal, it would be likely to show broad respect for the judge’s fact-finding.
But that court will have wide discretion on how it decides the legal and constitutional questions. State courts share authority with federal courts in deciding issues arising under the federal Constitution, and they have the last word in deciding issues of state law – unless they do so in a way that conflicts with federal law or the U.S. Constitution.
With the Colorado high court holding its hearing on December 6, the time for it to decide will be short, in order to leave time before January 5 for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the outcome at the state court dissatisfies either side.
In Washington, the Supreme Court is scheduled to begin a four-week recess on December 8. However, the Justices always can be made available for emergency or highly expedited business, and could assemble quickly for a hearing.
When the decision challenged before the Justices comes from a state court, there is no mandatory duty for the Justices to grant review and decide it. If the Court were to simply deny review, that would leave the Colorado court ruling intact. If it decides the case in a final way, that would end the controversy.
The Court’s rules say that it has the option of reviewing a state court ruling on “an important federal question” if there is a conflict among differing states’ courts on the issue, or if the issue is one that the Supreme Court itself has never decided previously.
There is now, in fact, a conflict among state courts on the controversy. The issue has never before arisen in the Supreme Court, but it very likely would regard it as an important question.
The Supreme Court will not review any facts developed in the case by the Colorado state courts, nor will it second-guess any parts of the state court decisions involving questions of state law.