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Colorado Trump Trial: Trump could be disqualified from 2024 ballot under 14th Amendment

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A closely-watched trial currently underway in Colorado could have major ramifications for Donald Trump’s potential political future. At the center of the case is whether Trump’s actions surrounding the events of January 6th, 2021 amount to “insurrection” as outlined in the Constitution, which would render him ineligible for office. 

Over the past week in a Denver courtroom, plaintiffs have argued that Trump’s rhetoric and response to the insurrection at the US Capitol meet the definition under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team is attempting to counter that narrative. As Judge Sarah Wallace now weighs these competing arguments and a vast array of legal issues, her forthcoming ruling will have important implications for whether Trump’s name can appear on presidential ballots moving forward. 

This week, a courtroom in Colorado is deliberating the ongoing viability of former President Donald J. Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. At the center of the trial is a lawsuit brought by Colorado voters arguing that, under the 14th Amendment, Mr. Trump is ineligible for office due to his role surrounding the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In addition to the Colorado lawsuit, oral arguments for a parallel lawsuit in Minnesota are scheduled for Thursday.

If the lawsuits in Colorado or Minnesota are successful, it would set a precedent as no former president has ever been blocked from seeking reelection due to the Constitution before. The last time this 14th Amendment provision was used was over 100 years ago, in 1919. Then, Representative Victor Berger was accused of aiding Germany during World War 1. Congress removed him from office using Section 3. However, the Supreme Court later overturned his conviction due to judicial bias. Berger was ultimately allowed to retake his seat. So, a former president being barred from running again by the Constitution would be unprecedented based on how rarely this post-Civil War constitutional penalty has been enacted before.

The Colorado lawsuit was filed in September by six voters from across the political spectrum – four Republicans and two independents. With legal assistance from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also known as “CREW,” these voters are arguing that Trump’s actions related to January 6th render him ineligible under the 14th Amendment. Specifically, they claim that if Trump is on the Republican primary ballot in 2024, it will harm them by siphoning support away from candidates they prefer. Should he go on to win the nomination, they say it would deprive them of their right to vote for a “qualified candidate” in the general election. 

Through this suit, the plaintiffs are asking the Colorado court to rule that Trump is disqualified from appearing on the ballot altogether in order to resolve any uncertainty around his eligibility as the primary season approaches. Their goal is to prevent the Colorado Secretary of State from including Trump’s name when printing ballots.

The Colorado lawsuit specifically hinges on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War to explicitly protect the rights of freed slaves by establishing citizenship and prohibiting states from denying rights or unequal treatment to citizens. and was also determined to stop high-ranking Confederate traitors from returning to public office.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bans any person who has previously taken an oath to uphold the Constitution from holding federal or state office if they later “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” 

The plaintiffs argue that Trump’s actions both before and on January 6th amounts to engaging in an insurrection by trying to overturn the election results through pressure on state officials and rioting at the Capitol.

A critical legal question the court must determine is whether Section 3 can disqualify a presidential candidate without explicit congressional action. The voters bringing the suit believe the language around insurrection applies directly to Trump and that election overseers or courts have the authority to deem him ineligible. However, determining whether Trump’s actions indeed constitute an “insurrection” as meant in the 14th Amendment and if the presidency falls under its restrictions will require complex constitutional analysis.

The plaintiffs presented witnesses who argued that the rioters at the Capitol felt they were following Trump’s orders. Police officers testified the mob had tactical gear and had made it clear that they believed themselves to be acting on Trump’s behalf.

Officer Daniel Hodges of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department described being beaten while trying to protect the Capitol building from rioters during his testimony. Video from the body camera he wore that day was then played in court.

In his testimony, Officer Hodges stated, “I was afraid for my life and my colleagues. I was afraid for the people in the U.S. Capitol building — congressmen, the vice president and what these people would do to them and how it would affect our democracy.” He recalled being attacked and having someone attempt to gouge out his eye as he defended against the rioters entering the Capitol.

A law professor also testified that Trump could have deployed the National Guard without local permission. Another professor discussed how Trump had courted extreme right groups for years and they would have understood his language as a call to violent action.

Trump’s lawyers are defending him by trying to distance their client from the rioters and arguing he did not incite violence. They called witnesses like a former Defense Department official who claimed Trump had authorized National Guard troops beforehand. Another ex-staffer discussed internal debates about Trump’s January 6th rally speech and said he wanted to limit inflammatory speakers. Trump’s team also plans to call an expert who will interpret Section 3 differently than the plaintiffs’ witnesses and argue the former president’s actions do not qualify as “insurrection.”

In essence, the plaintiffs are alleging Trump is culpable for January 6th based on his prior rhetoric and insufficient response, while his attorneys aim to portray the riot as disconnected from Trump and insist his behavior did not meet the standard of engaging in an insurrection as intended by the 14th Amendment.

Trump’s legal team attempted to end the trial abruptly, but their request was denied by the presiding judge. When Trump’s lawyers asked Judge Sarah Wallace to issue a directed verdict and throw the case out before presenting a defense, she refused, stating the trial involved “significant legal issues, many of which have never been decided by any court.” 

In denying the motion to dismiss, Judge Wallace stressed that her decision did not indicate who had the stronger legal argument. Instead, she acknowledged the complex issues in balancing First Amendment rights with potential 14th Amendment violations required thorough consideration of opposing precedents from both sides. Judge Wallace noted the two laws were hard to put together. She said the court couldn’t figure it all out yet without hearing the entire case. Letting the trial keep going as planned would allow time to think more about the complicated issues raised around both the Constitution and past rulings. Her decision meant getting to see everything before making a final call.

Judge Sarah Wallace has an important decision ahead as she presides over this case challenging Donald Trump’s eligibility to run for president again. After both sides deliver their closing arguments on November 15th, she will carefully consider the questions presented about Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and whether Trump engaged in insurrection on January 6th. Her ruling will come at a pivotal time, with the 2024 presidential election cycle soon beginning. But this trial is unlikely to end her involvement – whichever way Wallace rules is almost certain to face an appeal. As the presiding judge in Denver District Court, any appeals would go next to the Colorado Supreme Court. That court’s justices were all appointed by Democratic governors, so further legal wrangling could then potentially lead the case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the court’s conservative majority, three of whom were Trump appointees, might view the constitutional issues differently.

For now, the focus remains on Judge Wallace and her forthcoming decision. Legal experts note she has taken a deliberative approach so far and faces a complex decision balancing electoral and constitutional matters. Her upcoming ruling may set the stage for a lengthy judicial process.

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