Lawsuits seeking to remove Donald Trump from primary election ballots in 2024 are rapidly advancing in over a dozen states. The challenges contend that Trump’s conduct related to overturning the 2020 election results constitutes insurrection, making him ineligible for public office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Recent decisions in Maine and Colorado have already prohibited Trump from appearing on GOP primary ballots, lending momentum to the anti-Trump movement.
The 14th Amendment’s ‘Disqualification Clause’
The central focus of the mounting legal challenges is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Amendments passed after the Civil War. This provision, known as the “Disqualification Clause”, states that no person shall hold office who previously served in the US government and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution. It was intended to bar former Confederate officials from serving in the post-Civil War government.
The amendment gives Congress the power to remove the disqualification with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. Absent such action, states have taken up the matter through lawsuits targeting candidate eligibility. With Trump’s alleged incitement of the January 6 Capitol attack, plaintiffs argue his actions constitute exactly the kind of insurrection described in Section 3.
Early Court Victories in Maine and Colorado
In Maine, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows agreed that Trump fomented the Capitol riot and is therefore constitutionally prohibited from seeking the presidency again. This marked the first time a candidate has been excluded from the ballot due to the 14th Amendment. Bellows asserted that no prior candidate has “engaged in insurrection” to the extent Trump did surrounding the 2020 election and January 6.
In Colorado, the State Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to keep Trump off the primary ballot based on his insurrectionist conduct. While the decision allows appeal to the US Supreme Court, it shows legal momentum against Trump’s eligibility. Together, the Maine and Colorado rulings provide a template for additional challenges nationwide. However, courts in Michigan and Minnesota have asserted that state election officials lack the authority to remove candidates like Trump. This indicates the importance of federal court intervention.
Ongoing Legal Fights in 14 States
While the Colorado and Maine decisions are victories for Trump opponents, active lawsuits seeking to disqualify him remain in about 14 states. These include Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. In Arizona, while a judge dismissed the initial case, an appeal is now underway. The wide geographic range of these disputes underscores how Trump’s election defiance has jeopardized his candidacy across the country.
In Oregon, a ruling is imminent as the Secretary of State has asked the Supreme Court to resolve the matter urgently; the state must finalize its primary ballot by March 21st. The plaintiff in the Oregon case is Free Speech for People, the same group behind the successful Colorado lawsuit. In addition to its litigation efforts, the organization has directly petitioned top election officials in all 50 states to exclude Trump from their ballots.
These manifold legal challenges increase the pressure on the US Supreme Court to weigh in definitively on Trump’s qualifications for office. The Court’s word would either terminate or extend the state-level disputes. Most legal experts anticipate the Court will take up the issue soon given the gravity of the matter.
What Would the Supreme Court Consider?
Constitutional law professor Ashraf Ahmed believes the Supreme Court may avoid tackling thornier questions like defining “insurrection” under Section 3. Instead, it could issue a narrow procedural ruling that allows the challenges to proceed or not, without determining the merits of the underlying allegations. However, given the high stakes for American democracy, the Court may recognize the need for a substantive decision on the Disqualification Clause’s application to Trump.
Key issues the Court may address include:
- Does Trump’s conduct related to overturning the 2020 election results qualify as “insurrection” under the 14th Amendment?
- Did Trump engage in, incite, assist, or give comfort to an insurrection, even if not participating directly?
- Does the Disqualification Clause only apply to former federal officials from the Civil War era, or all government officials who betray their oaths?
- Does Congress have sole authority to invoke Section 3, or can states independently bar candidates like Trump from ballots?
How the Court answers these questions will have momentous implications for Trump and American politics broadly. By barring Trump from office for engaging in insurrection, the Court would set a precedent with ramifications far beyond one candidate. It would signal that violent assaults on democracy and the peaceful transfer of power are disqualifying events for future office-seekers.
On the other hand, a ruling in Trump’s favor would likely permit him to continue his campaign and reinforce perceptions of his impunity. With Trump still the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination, the ramifications of the Court’s judgment will be deeply felt by partisans across the spectrum.
Paths Forward for Anti-Trump Forces
For those committed to blocking Trump’s return to power, several pathways exist even if the Supreme Court declines to bar him from ballots:
- Continuing legal challenges in states not precluded by a hypothetical Supreme Court decision
- Urging state officials to independently refuse to certify Trump as a candidate
- Using additional sections of the 14th Amendment beyond the Disqualification Clause
- Seeking disqualification through future acts of Congress under Section 3
- Making Trump’s perceived disloyalty a centerpiece of the 2024 general election campaign
However, if the Supreme Court unambiguously clears Trump’s path to ballot access, options for his opponents will drastically narrow absent unforeseen events.
With primary deadlines fast approaching, both supporters and critics of Trump face pressure to resolve the matter soon. The coming months promise explosive legal and political clashes as the nation gears up for a momentous 2024 election. Fundamental questions about the meaning of insurrection, the boundaries of free speech, and the consequences for rejecting election results hang in the balance. The Supreme Court may soon dictate whether Trump’s political future is finished or only just beginning anew. Their judgment will profoundly steer the trajectory of American democracy and governance in the years ahead.