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Less than a month away from the Iowa caucuses, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Donald Trump is disqualified from the presidency for his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol. The 4-3 decision reversed a November ruling from a Denver trial court, marking the first time any court has found Trump to be ineligible for the office he previously held for four years.
The four justices who wrote the majority opinion cited a clause in the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies from public office those who’ve sworn to defend the Constitution and then engage in “insurrection or rebellion” against the country. The decision, which does not apply outside of Colorado, has accelerated an already frenzied news cycle and raised a ton of questions about the election.
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How did Colorado get involved?
The lawsuit in Colorado was filed in September by six voters—four Republicans and two unaffiliated—with backing from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a left-leaning, nonprofit watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.
While similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, Colorado was viewed as a particularly fertile ground for groups looking to disqualify Trump from the 2024 ballot, says Doug Spencer, a law professor at University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in election law and has previously served as an expert witness in voting rights and campaign finance cases. The state has what Spencer describes as “loose laws” that give the secretary of state significant discretion while also effectively allowing any concerned voter to mount a legal challenge to the qualifications of a candidate.
“It’s not a surprise the lawsuit was brought in Colorado,” Spencer says.
What is the 14th Amendment? And why is it being invoked?
The court’s ruling was influenced by its interpretation of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Ratified in 1868, the law states that no person shall hold office if they have previously taken an oath as a member of Congress or officer of the United States and have subsequently “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
In the years immediately after its passage, it was used regularly as a safeguard against former Confederate civil and military officeholders who sought to serve in federal or state government after the Civil War. Over the past 150 years, however, it has existed largely as a relic.
“President Trump’s direct and express efforts, over several months, exhorting his supporters to march to the Capitol to prevent what he falsely characterized as an alleged fraud on the people of this country were indisputably overt and voluntary,” the justices wrote in the majority opinion. “Moreover, the evidence amply showed that President Trump undertook all these actions to aid and further a common unlawful purpose that he himself conceived and set in motion: prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election and stop the peaceful transfer of power.”
Spencer points out that there is no clear and obvious definition of insurrection, which is why other state courts didn’t want to be the first to interpret the Constitution. “Our Supreme Court [in Colorado] said it wasn’t just that Trump had that speech that told people to fight like hell and tear down the Capitol; it’s that during that time, while [people] were breaking into the building, he was calling members of Congress and trying to overturn the election. To them, that’s engaging in insurrection.”
What does this ruling mean for other states?
Similar lawsuits have been filed in at least 30 other states, according to a litigation database from Lawfare, a nonpartisan site dedicated to covering national security issues. To this point, Colorado is the only state where such a challenge has been successful.
Election laws vary by state, but Spencer says the rationale used in the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision could apply elsewhere. Specifically, he cited Michigan and Minnesota—states with Supreme Courts that dismissed challenges to Trump’s qualifications for the primary but signaled an openness to the argument for the general election, effectively inviting the plaintiffs to refile their lawsuits at a later date. Colorado could be the first domino to fall.
“Nobody wants to be the first to make this kind of a determination because it’s an open question and they face all this backlash like the Colorado Supreme Court is right now,” Spencer says. “But once somebody else has done it, it could give other courts more courage if they were feeling the law was leaning in one direction but [were afraid of the repercussions]. Now, they have a little bit more cover.”
Where does the legal battle go from here?
Trump’s campaign, which described the Colorado ruling as “completely flawed,” has said it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Colorado Supreme Court has paused its decision until January 4, one day before the deadline for Secretary of State Jena Griswold to certify the candidates for the state’s March 5 Republican presidential primary. The court has said that if an appeal is sought before that date, Griswold will be required to print Trump’s name on the ballot until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling. Because of that timeline and those dynamics, Spencer believes Trump’s name will appear on the ballot.
What does this mean for Trump’s path back to the White House?
Colorado is one of 16 states with a primary on March 5, or “Super Tuesday.” At that point, 11 states and Washington, D.C., will have already held their primaries, and if polling provides an accurate indication of what will unfold in the coming months, Trump may already have a commanding lead. In Iowa, he is 32 points ahead of his next-closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, according to a poll this month from the Des Moines Register, and has leads of at least 20 points in the FiveThirtyEight polling average in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, the next two states in the Republican primary cycle.
When it comes to the general election, it’s unlikely Trump would win Colorado’s 10 electoral votes even if he appears on the ballot. He lost the state by 14 points in 2020.
What might happen if an appeal reaches the U.S. Supreme Court?
If Trump appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, as is expected, and it agrees to hear the case, the justices will be tasked with determining if the language of the 14th Amendment disqualifies Trump from the presidency. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court currently has a 6-3 conservative supermajority, with three of those justices appointed by Trump during his four-year term.
Even so, those justices haven’t displayed an extraordinary fealty to Trump, having rejected his election challenges in five states President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election. What might be more important than political ideology is judicial philosophy, with a number of conservative justices on the court being adherents of originalism, which seeks to deduce the intent of the Constitution’s framers when trying to rule on modern-day legal disputes. “There’s a chance the U.S. Supreme Court affirms what the Colorado Supreme Court has done,” Spencer says. “The question is whether they’re able to do that quickly enough [to impact the] election.”