WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court displayed skepticism on Thursday towards Colorado’s authority to remove former President Donald Trump from the Republican primary ballot due to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. During a two-hour argument, a majority of the justices indicated that they believed states should not have the power to determine whether a presidential candidate can be barred from running under the 14th Amendment’s provision, which prohibits individuals who have “engaged in insurrection” from holding office. Justices from various ideological backgrounds expressed concerns about the potential for states to reach different conclusions on candidate eligibility and suggested that only Congress could enforce the relevant provision.
The focus of the argument largely avoided the question of whether Trump participated in an insurrection, as the ruling is unlikely to hinge on that issue. Instead, the Supreme Court, which holds a 6-3 conservative majority, was addressing the interpretations and implications of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. This section, enacted in the aftermath of the Civil War, aims to prevent former Confederates from returning to power in the U.S. government. It states that any person who previously served as an “officer of the United States” and then engaged in an insurrection would be disqualified from holding federal office.
The justices showed doubt regarding the ability of states to enforce this provision. Chief Justice John Roberts questioned why the 14th Amendment would grant states, including Confederate states, the authority to interfere in the presidential election process. Justice Brett Kavanaugh also emphasized that Congress has the primary role in enforcing the provision, citing a Civil War-era ruling that had interpreted it. Additionally, several justices expressed concerns about the practical implications of allowing states to decide on presidential candidacy eligibility, highlighting the potential chaos that could arise from differing state conclusions.
Other key points of debate included whether Section 3 requires implementing legislation and the difficulty of defining what counts as an insurrection. Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether a president who sought federal funds for a nation the U.S. considers an enemy could be considered engaged in insurrection. The potential abuse and ambiguity surrounding the definition of insurrection and the consequences of different states having varying interpretations were subjects of deliberation.
Notably, Justice Clarence Thomas’s involvement in the case drew scrutiny due to his wife’s support for Trump’s challenge to the election results. While the conservative majority on the court includes three justices appointed by Trump, the court has consistently ruled against him since he left office.
A ruling on the Colorado case is expected within weeks, as the Supreme Court has expedited its hearing. The outcome will carry broad implications, possibly affecting Trump’s pursuit of the presidency in the upcoming fall election and prompting similar actions by other states. Maine’s top election official has already concluded that Trump is ineligible for the Republican primary ballot in that state, but the case has been put on hold, allowing Trump to remain on the ballot for now in both Colorado and Maine.
(Addition: The legal challenge against Trump was brought forth by a left-leaning government watchdog group and two law firms on behalf of Colorado residents. They allege that Trump intentionally organized and incited the Capitol attack on January 6th in an effort to prevent the electoral vote count.)