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Landmark Decision: Colorado Judge Rules Trump Engaged in Insurrection, Dismisses Constitutional Ballot Challenge

DENVER (AP) — In a significant legal development, a Colorado judge ruled on Friday that former President Donald Trump was involved in insurrection during the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. However, the judge rejected an attempt to bar him from the state's primary ballot, citing uncertainty about whether a Civil War-era Constitutional amendment, which prohibits insurrectionists from holding public office, applies to the presidency.

The lawsuit, initiated by a left-leaning group on behalf of a coalition of Republican and independent Colorado voters, argued that Trump's actions in connection to the Capitol attack violated a clause in the 14th Amendment preventing individuals who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the Constitution from holding office. This decision by District Judge Sarah B. Wallace marks the third ruling in just over a week against lawsuits aiming to exclude Trump from the ballot based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed Trump to remain on the primary ballot, asserting that political parties have exclusive discretion over candidate selection. Meanwhile, a Michigan judge determined that Congress should be the proper venue for deciding whether Section 3 applies to Trump.

In her comprehensive 102-page ruling, Judge Wallace affirmed that Trump did indeed "engage in insurrection" on January 6, dismissing his defense that he was exercising free speech. Ordinarily, such a finding would disqualify a candidate under Section 3. However, Wallace hesitated to apply it to a presidential candidate, as the clause doesn't explicitly mention the presidency but refers to an "elector of President and Vice President," among other offices.

"The Court’s decision reflects its reluctance to adopt an interpretation that would disqualify a presidential candidate without a clear, unmistakable indication that such is the intent of Section Three," wrote the judge.

Responding to the ruling, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung labeled it "another nail in the coffin of the un-American ballot challenges," characterizing the cases as "cynical and blatant political attempts" by desperate Democrats to influence the upcoming presidential election. The group behind the lawsuit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced plans to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.

“The Court's determination that Donald Trump was engaged in insurrection follows a meticulous and comprehensive examination of the evidence,” stated attorney Mario Nicolais, representing the voters who initiated the lawsuit. “We are gratified by the opinion and anticipate addressing the singular legal issue on appeal, specifically whether Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is applicable to presidents involved in insurrection.”

Whether this pertains to the Colorado case or similar ones filed in other states, the ultimate question is expected to land before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not previously ruled on Section 3. In the Michigan case, the group Free Speech for People, which is suing, filed an appeal in state court on Thursday. Legal experts note the significance of Judge Wallace's finding that Trump engaged in insurrection, concurring with the claim that he “incited” the attack.

“It’s a remarkable declaration for a court to assert that a former president participated in insurrection against the United States,” remarked Derek Muller, a Notre Dame law professor closely monitoring the case. “And there’s a strong possibility that, upon appeal, a court may bar him from the ballot.”

Trump, characterizing the efforts to remove him as "election interference" funded by "dark money" Democratic groups, has consistently maintained that he was exercising his First Amendment rights on January 6, denying any incitement of insurrection. His legal team argued that Section 3 was never intended for presidential candidates and emphasized that a single judge shouldn't terminate a candidacy based on an interpretation of a clause rarely invoked in 150 years.

“The petitioners are asking this court to do something that’s never been done in the history of the United States,” asserted Trump's attorney Scott Gessler during closing arguments. “The evidence doesn’t come close to allowing the court to do it.”

Petitioners countered by highlighting the clarity of Section 3, historically used to prevent former Confederates from assuming government control after the Civil War. The provision bars those who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and subsequently “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same” from holding state or federal office, unless granted amnesty by a two-thirds vote of Congress.

In a weeklong hearing earlier this month, attorneys arguing to disqualify Trump from the ballot called upon a law professor who testified that the Section 3 clause was historically intended to prevent former Confederates from ascending to the presidency. The professor presented post-Civil War documents suggesting that even actions such as purchasing Confederate war bonds could render an individual ineligible for office. The legal team seeking Trump's removal contended that his disqualification was as straightforward as failing to meet the 35-year age limit for the presidency, a unique argument highlighting the unprecedented nature of the case.

During the proceedings, the attorneys underscored the rarity of such disqualification, attributing it to the exceptional circumstances surrounding Trump and his actions. Legal historians pointed out that Section 3 had fallen into disuse after Congress granted amnesty to most former Confederates in 1872. Its resurgence occurred post the Capitol attack, designed to thwart the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.

Central to the case were 150-year-old records from the debate over the 14th Amendment. Judge Wallace acknowledged "scant direct evidence" that the measure was originally intended to apply to the presidency. Trump's attorneys highlighted a finding by a law professor that an early draft specified the presidency and vice presidency, but the final version did not. Additionally, the provision referred to “officers of the United States,” a phrase elsewhere in the Constitution that excludes the top two offices. However, the petitioners' legal historian testified that the understanding after the Civil War was that Section 3 would prevent figures like Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, from being elected president.

The historian unearthed records from the debate, revealing a senator's query about the provision's application to the presidency. In response, an author read back the “officers of the United States” language, convincing the inquiring senator that it did indeed encompass the president. Judge Wallace noted the tension between competing interpretations in the record, emphasizing the lack of definitive guidance in the text or historical sources.

These recent cases against Trump signify a renewed interest in the long-overlooked Section 3, a provision that only gained prominence after the events of January 6.

The organization behind the challenges in Minnesota and Michigan, Free Speech For People, extended its efforts to remove Republican Representatives Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene from the 2022 ballot, citing Section 3. Cawthorn's case became irrelevant when he lost in the primary, and a judge dismissed the lawsuit attempting to oust Greene. Separately, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) effectively employed Section 3 to eliminate a rural New Mexico County Commissioner. The commissioner had entered the Capitol on January 6 and was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor, resulting in a successful use of the provision to address the official's eligibility for public office.

In conclusion, the legal battles surrounding the application of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to disqualify political candidates have brought unprecedented attention to a long-neglected provision. The recent case in Colorado, where a judge found that Donald Trump engaged in insurrection but rejected a challenge to keep him off the state’s primary ballot, highlights the complexity and historical intricacies of this legal issue.

The lawsuits, initiated by groups such as Free Speech For People and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), have extended beyond Trump, encompassing other political figures like Representatives Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The outcomes varied, with Cawthorn's case becoming moot after losing the primary and the lawsuit against Greene being dismissed by a judge.

The legal arguments have delved into the historical context of Section 3, its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, and its relevance to contemporary political scenarios. The lack of precedent and definitive guidance in the text or historical records has added complexity to these cases.

As these legal battles continue, it remains to be seen whether the question of Section 3's applicability to presidential candidates will ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The cases mark a renewed interest in a provision that has been largely ignored for decades, signaling a potential shift in how the legal system navigates challenges related to the eligibility of candidates based on past insurrectionist activities.