The US supreme court will hear oral arguments on Thursday morning in the high-stakes case that will probably determine whether Donald Trump is eligible to run for president this year.
The case, Donald J Trump v Norma Anderson et al, came about after six Colorado voters filed a lawsuit last year alleging Trump was ineligible to run for president under a little-used provision of the constitution’s 14th amendment. The provision says that any member of Congress or officer of the United States who takes an oath to defend the constitution and then subsequently engages in insurrection is barred from holding office. The ban can only be overridden by a two-thirds vote by both chambers of Congress.
Trump’s conduct during the January 6 Capitol attack disqualifies him from holding federal office, the Colorado voters claimed in their suit, filed last year in state court. After a five-day trial, a judge found Trump had engaged in insurrection, but was not an “officer of the United States” and declined to remove him from the ballot. In a 4-3 decision in December, the Colorado supreme court reversed that ruling and barred him from the ballot. The supreme court agreed to hear the case in January.
While there have been several suits seeking to remove Trump from the ballot, only Colorado and Maine have done so thus far. A Maine judge last month ordered the secretary of state there to hold off on excluding Trump until the US supreme court issued a decision.
A decision upholding the Colorado supreme court’s ruling would not automatically remove Trump from the ballot across the country. While some states have rebuffed efforts to remove Trump from the primary ballot, a supreme court saying Trump can be disqualified would probably set off a flurry of fast challenges in state courts and other tribunals to disqualify him from the ballot in the general election.
It’s generally believed that Trump has the upper hand at the court, where conservatives have a 6-3 supermajority and Trump nominated three of the justices. Still, experts say there is a high degree of uncertainty over what exactly the court will do because it has chosen not to limit the scope of arguments before it and the issues are so unprecedented.
In their briefing to the supreme court, Trump’s lawyers have claimed there will be “chaos and bedlam” in the US if a leading presidential candidate is blocked from the ballot. They gave an array of arguments to the justices for why he should not be disqualified, including that the word “officer” does not apply to the president and that he did not engage in insurrection.
“In our system of ‘government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people’, the American people – not courts or election officials – should choose the next President of the United States,” Trump’s lawyers wrote. “
The Colorado voters, backed by the left-leaning non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew), argue that it is absurd to claim the 14th amendment does not apply to the presidency and that it would be a danger to democracy to allow him to hold office again.
“Section 3 is designed precisely to avoid giving oath-breaking insurrectionists like Trump the power to unleash such mayhem again,” they write. “Nobody, not even a former President, is above the law.”
There is no legal precedent for the case – the justices will be wrestling with the key issues in the case, including whether Trump committed insurrection on January 6 for the first time. The 14th amendment was enacted after the civil war to bar former Confederates from holding office and has never been used to bar a presidential candidate. In 2022, the amendment was used to remove a New Mexico county commissioner from office, the first time it had been used that way in a century.
The case marks the court’s most direct intervention in a presidential election since its controversial decision in Bush v Gore in 2000. Seeking to preserve its reputation as an apolitical body, the court is usually hesitant to get involved in heated political disputes, but the arrival of the Trump case makes the court’s intervention in the most controversial of political cases unavoidable. It comes as public confidence in the court continues to decline amid a series of ethics scandals and politically charged decisions.