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Supreme Court tosses Colorado’s decision to bar Trump from ballot

Justices find that Congress has power to enforce 14th Amendment on federal candidates, not states

The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington.
The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court cleared the way on Monday for Donald Trump to appear on 2024 presidential ballots, rejecting a legal attempt to bar the Republican front-runner from the Colorado primary ballot over his push to undercut American democracy after his 2020 election loss.

In a unanimous ruling, the justices struck down a Colorado Supreme Court decision that had deemed him ineligible for the state primary ballot and had found that he was disqualified from the presidency under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, known as the Insurrection Clause.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution “makes Congress, rather than the States, responsible for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates.”

The court said the case presented a question about whether states, “in addition to Congress, may also enforce Section 3.”

“We conclude that States may disqualify persons holding or attempting to hold state office. But States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the Presidency,” the ruling states.

“Nothing in the Constitution delegates to the States any power to enforce Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates,” the ruling states.

The Supreme Court ruling, issued without identifying which justice wrote it, will halt legal efforts in other states that seek to bar Trump from the ballot because of his push to stay in power, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The definitive legal win for Trump comes a day before Super Tuesday, when primary voters in Colorado and other states throughout the nation will go to the polls.

A focal point in the case was the language of Section 3, which aims to prevent people who previously took an oath to support the Constitution from holding office if they have “engaged in insurrection.”

While all the justices agreed in the judgment that states cannot enforce the 14th Amendment against federal candidates, the three justices on the liberal wing did not agree with how far the majority went.

The opinion “decides momentous and difficult issues unnecessarily,” Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena M. Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in a separate concurrence filed with the opinion.

“The majority announces that a disqualification for insurrection can occur only when Congress enacts a particular kind of legislation pursuant to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the three justices wrote. “In doing so, the majority shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement.”

The unsigned majority opinion agreed with arguments, made in briefs by Republican members of Congress and others, that the 14th Amendment requires Congress to approve “implementing legislation” to authorize enforcement of Section 3.

The Colorado Republican Party also argued that the Insurrection Clause is “not self-executing,” meaning that Congress must pass a law to permit individuals to sue under the provision.

That congressional power “is critical” when it comes to enforcing Section 3, the Supreme Court ruled.

Congress could pass such legislation, but the political climate on Capitol Hill makes it exceedingly unlikely during this presidential campaign.

Trump, in remarks Monday, thanked the Supreme Court for “working so quickly and so diligently and so brilliantly.”

“You cannot take somebody out of a race. The voters can take the person out of the race very quickly. But a court shouldn’t be doing that and the Supreme Court saw that very well. And I really do believe that will be a unifying factor,” Trump said.

Noah Bookbinder, president of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement that the Supreme Court allowed Trump to appear on the ballot “on technical legal grounds.”

“The Supreme Court removed an enforcement mechanism, and in letting Trump back on the ballot, they failed to meet the moment,” Bookbinder said. Instead, he said “it will be up to the American people to ensure accountability.”

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold expressed disappointment in the ruling. “I do believe that states should be able under our Constitution to bar oath-breaking insurrectionists,” she said in an interview with MSNBC.

The ruling is in line with the sentiment expressed by the justices at oral arguments last month, in which, over more than two hours of oral arguments, they expressed a range of concerns over several key arguments made by the legal team for the Colorado voters.

At arguments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. raised concern about the practical consequences of siding with the Colorado voters. In particular, he expressed concerns about states having the power to bar federal candidates from ballots, particularly when there could be different standards or partisan reasons for how those states make the determination.

“I would expect that a goodly number of states will say, whoever the Democratic candidate is, ‘you’re off the ballot,’ and others for the Republican candidate, ‘you’re off the ballot,’” Roberts said. “It will come down to just a handful of states that are going to decide the presidential election. That’s a pretty daunting consequence.”

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