The fraught debate over whether the 14th Amendment disqualifies Trump, explained

A marcher holds a sign that says, “Not My Dictator” with a picture of Donald Trump in front of Trump International Tower on January 18, 2020. | Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty

The Supreme Court will decide whether Trump can be on the ballot. Would disqualifying him save democracy from a dangerous threat — or imperil it further?

Should Donald Trump even be allowed on the ballot in 2024?

The Colorado Supreme Court and Maine’s Secretary of State both argue that he shouldn’t — saying that, because Trump engaged in “insurrection” in trying to overturn the 2020 election, the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment makes him ineligible for the presidency.

Now the US Supreme Court will weigh in. On Thursday, the justices will hear oral arguments on the matter. Eventually, they’ll decide whether or not Trump will be allowed on ballots this year.

The argument for disqualifying Trump hinges on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Its proponents argue that its plain language disqualifies Trump, who they say engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution, from holding office again.

Some of the country’s most prominent legal experts, as well as some activists and Democratic politicians, have backed the push to disqualify Trump. Yet most in the Democratic Party have kept a wary distance from the effort. And other experts have argued that such actions, intended to save American democracy, might in fact imperil it even further.

To be clear: It seems very unlikely that the Supreme Court actually would make the remarkable move of disqualifying Trump — something that would turn the 2024 election upside down overnight.

Yet the very existence of the effort raises difficult questions about how a democracy should deal with the threat of a candidate like Trump, who retains a good deal of popular support, but who attempted to steal the 2020 election and talks constantly about having his political opponents imprisoned.

A Trump win yearthis would be deeply dangerous for American democracy. Yet taking away voters’ option to choose him would pose its own perils. It would inevitably be seen as blatant election theft by much of the country — which would trigger responses, both from Republicans in office and Trump supporters on the ground, that could degrade democracy even more severely.

How the effort to use the 14th Amendment to disqualify Trump gained steam

The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, just after the Civil War, and was meant to deal with its fallout. Some of its provisions were later used as the foundation of modern civil rights law. Section 3 is about a different topic: whether former insurrectionists can hold public office. Its relevant text is as follows:

“No person shall … hold any office, civil or military, under the United States … who, having previously taken an oath … as an officer of the United States … 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.”

Days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, some law professors began suggesting that this meant that Trump, and other Republicans whom they viewed as complicit in the insurrection, should be barred from office.

Liberal advocacy groups took up the charge in 2022, suing unsuccessfully to try to get Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and three Arizona Republican candidates taken off the ballot. Their arguments did prevail in one case, though: A New Mexico judge removed County Commissioner Couy Griffin from his post. (Unlike Greene, Griffin had unlawfully entered the Capitol on January 6 and had been convicted of trespassing.) That marked the first successful use of Section 3 since 1919.

This was all warmup to taking on Trump. This August, law professors William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen released a 126-page forthcoming law review article on Section 3. They concluded, after a year of studying the topic, that Section 3 sets out a “sweeping” disqualification standard that excludes Trump “and potentially many others” from holding office.

The article got enormous attention, in part because Baude and Paulsen are conservatives, and because it was quickly endorsed by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe and conservative former judge J. Michael Luttig, two of the country’s biggest legal names. Steven Calabresi, a founder and co-chair of the board of the Federalist Society, also initially said he was convinced — though he changed his mind a month later.

Baude and Paulsen also raised eyebrows for arguing that, per their legal analysis, state election officials should act to take Trump off the ballot now — rather than waiting for Congress or judges to do it. Section 3 is “self-executing,” they argue, so state officials need to obey it.

Democrats have been hesitant to push for Trump’s disqualification, but lawsuits are now moving forward in the courts

With a few exceptions — Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) opined that Trump is disqualified from running — most Democratic politicians have kept a wary distance from this effort.

As much as the party fears and loathes Trump, there is an evident concern that striking him from the ballot would be going too far. The reasons for this may include a commitment to democracy, a fear of the explosive backlash that would follow such a move, a desire to make the effort look less partisan, or even a cynical calculation that Trump would be the easiest Republican to beat.

So then, the hunt was on to find a judge who will declare Trump ineligible to be president. And attention turned to two “lean Democratic” states where Democrats dominated the Supreme Court.

Free Speech for People, another progressive advocacy group, filed suit in Minnesota. But in November, that state’s Supreme Court declined to remove Trump from the GOP primary ballot — though they left open the possibility that they could reconsider the issue for the general election.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a longtime progressive advocacy group, filed suit in Colorado. In November, a lower court judge effectively punted, saying Trump had committed “insurrection” but should stay on the primary ballot anyway. The convoluted reason offered was that Section 3 says an insurrectionist can’t serve as an “officer of the United States” — but the presidency is not an officer of the United States.

In December, though, Colorado’s Supreme Court issued their 4-3 ruling that Trump should in fact be dropped from the primary ballot because he’s ineligible to serve as president. “We do not reach these conclusions lightly,” the justices wrote. “We are mindful of the magnitude and weight of the questions now before us. We are likewise mindful of our solemn duty to apply the law, without fear or favor, and without being swayed by public reaction to the decisions that the law mandates we reach.”

Most Democratic secretaries of state, meanwhile, took no action to disqualify Trump, saying this was a matter for the courts. One exception, was Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows (D), who ruled Trump disqualified in December.

Trump appealed both the Colorado and Maine rulings to the US Supreme Court, and that’s where things currently lie.

The case for disqualifying Trump

The legal debates here can be abstruse. They feature attempts to divine the intent of politicians during the 1860s, discussions on how seriously to take an 1869 circuit court opinion by Chief Justice Salmon Chase, and slippery slope hypotheticals about how disqualification could later be abused in different situations.

So let’s zoom out and ask the real question at the heart of all this: Would disqualifying Trump from the ballot in this way be a good idea, or would it be its own sort of affront to democracy?

Many democracies have struggled with the question of how to deal with a threat to democracy rising through the electoral system, and there are no easy answers. In October, I spoke with Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who just co-authored a book, Tyranny of the Minority, on the US’s democratic crisis, about the options.

Ziblatt noted Hans Kelsen, an Austrian legal theorist in the 1930s, who he said “made the case that if you really believe in democracy, you have to be willing to go down on a sinking ship and come back another day.” In Kelsen’s view, the only defensible solution to authoritarians rising in the democratic system is to beat them at the ballot box.

With the rise of the Nazis, that thinking obviously didn’t age well, said Ziblatt. “I think that’s naive,” he said. “This idea that we need to just stand by and let our democracy come under assault and hope everything will work out — it turned out not to work out.”

So the post-World War II German constitution set up a procedure and a legal framework by which certain politicians or parties deemed dangerous to the constitution could be restricted from running for office. “It’s a very complex and highly regulated procedure,” said Ziblatt — involving federal and state offices, a bureaucracy, court approval, and necessary legal steps — because disqualification is such a “potentially dangerous and powerful device.”

Other countries have adopted similar approaches, which are known as “militant democracy” or “defensive democracy.” The idea is to protect democracy by excluding the threats to it from the political scene.

The thinking is: Trump tried to destroy American democracy in 2020. If he’s allowed to try again, there’s good reason to suspect he’ll do more damage. So why not stop him now? Supporters of disqualifying Trump, like Luttig, argue that he disqualified himself. The Constitution says insurrectionists can’t hold office, and we have a duty to uphold the Constitution, they claim.

The case against disqualifying Trump

But the problem with the 14th Amendment option, both Levitsky and Ziblatt told me, is that the US did not establish a consistent procedure or institutional authority for excluding candidates after the Civil War. “We have no agreed-upon institutional mechanism in place, no electoral authority, no judicial body with precedent and practice that all the major political forces agree should be empowered to make this decision,” Levitsky said.

Long-standing institutions and procedures provide credibility; ideally, they help assure the nation that these decisions aren’t ad hoc, arbitrary, and politicized — as they are in many countries. In Latin America, Levitsky says, disqualification is often “badly abused” to exclude candidates the powers that be simply don’t want to win.

In Trump’s case, what would look to some like dutifully standing up for the Constitution would look to many others like an unprecedented intervention by elites into the electoral process, based on a disputed interpretation of a 155-year-old, rarely used provision — with the clear underlying motivation of preventing voters from making a particular person the president.

Both professors blanched at the idea of partisan secretaries of state taking Trump off the ballot on their own. Levitsky called this “deeply problematic,” and Ziblatt said it would be “very fraught and dangerous” and likely to lead to “escalation.”

Pro-Trump secretaries of state would surely respond with their own disqualifications of Democratic candidates in reprisal. Indeed, Trump’s supporters already caused chaos at the Capitol when they wrongly believed the election was being stolen from him, and they’re already disenchanted with American institutions. What if Trump truly was prevented from even running by questionable means? Things can always get worse and more dangerous. Legal commentator Mark Herrmann compared secretaries of state disqualifying Trump to opening Pandora’s Box.

Given the lack of precedent, the much “healthier path,” Levitsky said, would have been if the Republican Party had managed to self-police by convicting Trump during his second impeachment trial and blocked him from running again. They didn’t — and that’s why we’re in this mess, debating whether democracy can even survive another Trump presidency.

Update, February 7, 4:30 pm ET: This article was originally published on October 7 and has been updated, most recently in advance of Supreme Court oral arguments for this case.

By: Andrew Prokop
Title: The fraught debate over whether the 14th Amendment disqualifies Trump, explained
Sourced From:
Published Date: Wed, 07 Feb 2024 21:32:40 +0000

Read More
Did you miss our previous article…

+ posts

I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.