First, Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled that former President Donald Trump wasn’t eligible to run for his old job in that state. Then, Maine’s Democratic secretary of state ruled the same for her state. Who’s next?
Both decisions are historic. The Colorado court was the first court to apply to a presidential candidate a rarely used constitutional ban against those who “engaged in insurrection.” Maine’s secretary of state was the first top election official to unilaterally strike a presidential candidate from the ballot under that provision.
But both decisions are on hold while the legal process plays out.
That means that Trump remains on the ballot in Colorado and Maine and that his political fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Maine ruling will likely never take effect on its own. Its central impact is increasing pressure on the nation’s highest court to say clearly: Can Trump still run for president after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol?
What’s the legal issue?
After the Civil War, the U.S. ratified the 14th Amendment to guarantee rights to former slaves and more. It also included a two-sentence clause called Section 3, designed to keep former Confederates from regaining government power after the war.
The measure reads:
“No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.”
Congress did remove that disability from most Confederates in 1872, and the provision fell into disuse. But it was rediscovered after Jan. 6.
How does this apply to Trump?
Trump is already being prosecuted for the attempt to overturn his 2020 loss that culminated with Jan. 6, but Section 3 doesn’t require a criminal conviction to take effect. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed to disqualify Trump, claiming he engaged in insurrection on Jan. 6 and is no longer qualified to run for office.
All the suits failed until the Colorado ruling. And dozens of secretaries of state have been asked to remove him from the ballot. All said they didn’t have the authority to do so without a court order — until Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ decision.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on Section 3. It’s likely to do so in considering appeals of the Colorado decision — the state Republican Party has already appealed, and Trump is expected to file his own shortly. Bellows’ ruling cannot be appealed straight to the U.S. Supreme Court — it has to be appealed up the judicial chain first, starting with a trial court in Maine.
The Maine decision does force the high court’s hand, though. It was already highly likely the justices would hear the Colorado case, but Maine removes any doubt.
Trump lost Colorado in 2020, and he doesn’t need to win it again to garner an Electoral College majority next year. But he won one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes in 2020 by winning the state’s 2nd Congressional District, so Bellows’ decision would have a direct impact on his odds next November.
Until the high court rules, any state could adopt its own standard on whether Trump, or anyone else, can be on the ballot. That’s the sort of legal chaos the court is supposed to prevent.