Supreme Court’s Trump Ruling Highlights Divisions Between Justices  

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed the Colorado lower court’s controversial removal of Donald Trump from the state’s Republican primary ballot. The fatal defects of the Colorado decision were so plentiful that the Supreme Court could have overturned it for a wide variety of reasons. Still, the majority chose to base its ruling on grounds which the three liberal justices could join, making it a unanimous ruling.

Even so, the Court’s three liberal justices felt compelled to author a concurring opinion in which they offer a critique of the extent to which the majority opinion shaped future challenges to former president Trump’s ballot eligibility.

The Court’s decision gives us some insight about how the Court will rule in the future on the various get-Trump lawfare cases. It’s likely the Court will focus on cases that can be resolved with the support of the liberal justices, while delaying or avoiding the cases that can only be decided in ways that highlight the political divisions on the Court.

In today’s ruling, the Court noted, the Fourteenth Amendment disqualification clause provides that:

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.

If you wondered why within days of Jan. 6, 2021, the media immediately started using the word “insurrection” the Colorado lawsuit should make that apparent. The left had its eyes on the Fourteenth Amendment disqualification clause even then. Just like the word “collusion” empowered the deep state to launch an intelligence investigation against Trump, the word “insurrection” activated lawfare under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Trump supporters and many legal scholars argue that the events of Jan. 6 do not constitute an insurrection within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Insurrections are armed military operations, and no one protesting at the Capitol was armed on Jan. 6. Increasingly, Americans view the events of Jan. 6 as a protest that spun out of control, with the encouragement of undercover federal police. Further, Trump supporters argue that the disqualification clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply to the presidency because the president is not “an officer of the United States” but, rather, is elected by the people. Finally, Trump supporters warned that a state-by-state ballot disqualification battle would create chaos in the presidential election as courts applying different standards of proof would reach different conclusions.

It’s this last theory that persuaded all nine of the justices. The court held that:

The “patchwork” that would likely result from state enforcement would “sever the direct link that the Framers found so critical between the National Government and the people of the United States” as a whole. …. An evolving electoral map could dramatically change the behavior of voters, parties, and States across the country, in different ways and at different times. The disruption would be all the more acute—and could nullify the votes of millions and change the election result—if Section 3 enforcement were attempted after the Nation has voted. Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos—arriving at any time or different times, up to and perhaps beyond the Inauguration.

So who, if anyone, could exclude Trump from the ballot based on the insurrection theory? The Supreme Court leaves the door open for Congress to do this. The Court held, “The Constitution empowers Congress to prescribe how those determinations should be made. The relevant provision is Section 5, which enables Congress, subject of course to judicial review, to pass ‘appropriate legislation’ to ‘enforce’ the Fourteenth Amendment.”

All nine justices agreed that states lacked the power to enforce the “insurrection” disqualification, noting, “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.”

This dashed the hopes of the liberal minority who wanted to leave the door open for activist federal judges. In the concurring opinion, the three liberal justices wrote, “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. In doing so, the majority shuts the door on other potential means of federal enforcement. We cannot join an opinion that decides momentous and difficult issues unnecessarily, and we therefore concur only in the judgment.”

Trump appointee Justice Amy Coney Barrett also criticized the majority for shutting this door because it forced the minority to withhold unqualified endorsement of an otherwise 9-0 opinion. She wrote,

I join Parts I and II-B of the Court’s opinion. I agree that States lack the power to enforce Section 3 against Presidential candidates. That principle is sufficient to resolve this case, and I would decide no more than that. This suit was brought by Colorado voters under state law in state court. It does not require us to address the complicated question whether federal legislation is the exclusive vehicle through which Section 3 can be enforced. The majority’s choice of a different path leaves the remaining Justices with a choice of how to respond. In my judgment, this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency.

In other words, Justice Barrett wanted to wait for a federal judge to disqualify Trump before considering whether only Congress could ban Trump from the ballot. If the Supreme Court had waited for the situation to arise, she argues, it could have enlisted the liberal justices to join in an unqualified 9-0 opinion. Her writing hints at the enormous pressure the justices are under as they attempt to reject all the lawfare cases aimed at the former president.

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