DENVER – In a historic and controversial ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that former President Donald Trump is ineligible to run for president under the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. The court removed Trump from the state’s presidential primary ballot, setting the stage for a possible Supreme Court showdown over his candidacy.
The ruling, which was split 4-3 along partisan lines, is the first time that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment has been invoked to bar a presidential candidate from office. The amendment, which was enacted after the Civil War, prohibits anyone who has sworn an oath to the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against it from holding any federal or state office.
The court’s majority held that Trump violated Section 3 by inciting the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The court rejected the argument of a lower court judge, who ruled that Trump could not be disqualified because Section 3 was not intended to apply to the presidency.
The court’s decision is not final, however. The court stayed its order until Jan. 4, or until the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes. The state must finalize its presidential primary ballot by Jan. 5. Trump’s lawyers have vowed to appeal the ruling to the highest court in the land, which has the ultimate authority to interpret the Constitution.
Trump’s legal team denounced the ruling as an attack on democracy and expressed confidence that the Supreme Court would overturn it. Trump himself did not address the ruling at a rally in Iowa on Tuesday night, but his campaign sent out a fundraising email calling it a “tyrannical ruling.”
The ruling also drew criticism from the Republican National Committee, which accused the Colorado Supreme Court of “election interference” and pledged to support Trump’s legal fight.
The ruling could have significant implications for Trump’s political future, as well as the 2024 presidential race. Trump, who lost Colorado by 13 points in 2020, does not need the state to win the election, but he could face similar challenges in other states where lawsuits have been filed to disqualify him under Section 3. The provision, which was designed to prevent former Confederates from returning to power, has rarely been used since the Reconstruction era.
“This is a major threat to Trump’s candidacy,” said Derek Muller, a law professor at Notre Dame who has been following the Section 3 cases. “I think it may embolden other state courts or secretaries to act now that the bandage has been ripped off.”
The Colorado case is the first one to succeed in disqualifying Trump under Section 3. The case was brought by a group of Colorado voters and activists, who argued that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 amounted to an insurrection against the Constitution. After a weeklong trial in November, District Judge Sarah B. Wallace agreed that Trump had engaged in insurrection, but ruled that he could not be barred from the ballot because of the ambiguity of Section 3. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed her ruling on Tuesday, finding that Section 3 clearly applies to the presidency.
The ruling sparked a fierce backlash from Trump’s attorneys, who challenged the court’s finding that Trump incited the Jan. 6 attack. They claimed that Trump was exercising his free speech rights and did not call for violence. Trump’s lawyer Scott Gessler also argued that the attack was more of a “riot” than an insurrection.
The court’s majority was not persuaded by these arguments. They pointed out that Trump had urged his supporters to “fight” at the Capitol, where Congress was performing a vital constitutional duty. They said that this was a clear example of insurrection, and that Trump was responsible for the violence that ensued.
The court’s decision was not unanimous, however. Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright dissented, saying that the constitutional questions were too complex to be resolved in a state court. Justices Maria E. Berkenkotter and Carlos Samour also dissented, saying that Trump had a right to due process before being disqualified from office. They argued that even if Trump had committed heinous acts, such as engaging in insurrection, he still deserved a fair hearing before being barred from the presidency.
The Colorado ruling contrasted with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled last month that the state party could choose any candidate for its primary ballot. It dismissed a Section 3 lawsuit, but said that the plaintiffs could try again in the general election.
In another 14th Amendment case, a Michigan judge ruled that Congress, not the courts, should decide whether Trump can run for president. That ruling is being appealed. The liberal group behind those cases, Free Speech For People, also filed a lawsuit in Oregon to remove Trump from the ballot there.
Both groups are funded by liberal donors who also support President Joe Biden. Trump has blamed Biden for the lawsuits against him, even though Biden has no role in them. He accused his rival of “defacing the constitution” to end his campaign.
Trump’s allies also rushed to his defense, slamming the decision as “un-American” and “insane” and part of a politically-motivated effort to destroy his candidacy.
“Four partisan Democrat operatives on the Colorado Supreme Court think they get to decide for all Coloradans and Americans the next presidential election,” House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik said in a statement.