Rich Graessle/Icon SMI/ZUMA
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.In the days after the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, some legal experts began to speculate that a little-known constitutional provision might be used to block President Donald Trump from ever serving a second term. The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, included a portion, called Section 3, that was designed to keep former Confederate leaders out of Congress. But could the section, which disqualified officials who had engaged in “insurrection or rebellion,” also be used to block Trump from running for president again, based on his actions supporting for the Capitol riot?
In the lead-up to 2024, attorneys across the country have been trying to make exactly this case—and so far, they haven’t received a direct answer. But on Friday, a federal judge ruled for the first time on the merits of the argument. Following a landmark trial in Denver, Federal District Judge Sarah B. Wallace authored a scathing opinion finding that Trump did indeed engage in insurrection. Nonetheless, Wallace decided, he could appear on the Colorado primary ballot, because Section 3’s language isn’t specific enough on the matter of whether it applies to presidents.
Wallace didn’t mince words about Trump’s behavior on January 6, finding that he acted “with the specific intent to incite political violence and direct it at the Capitol with the purpose of disrupting the electoral certification.” Her damning assessment continued:
Trump cultivated a culture that embraced political violence through his consistent endorsement of the same. He responded to growing threats of violence and intimidation in the lead-up to the certification by amplifying his false claims of election fraud. He convened a large crowd on the date of the certification in Washington, D.C., focused them on the certification process, told them their country was being stolen from them, called for strength and action, and directed them to the Capitol where the certification was about to take place.
When the violence began, he took no effective action, disregarded repeated calls to intervene, and pressured colleagues to delay the certification until roughly three hours had passed, at which point he called for dispersal, but not without praising the mob and again endorsing the use of political violence. The evidence shows that Trump not only knew about the potential for violence, but that he actively promoted it and, on January 6, 2021, incited it.
Yet Wallace, explaining her decision, wrote that Section 3 did not specifically name the office of president in a list of positions to which it applied. The amendment’s language did apply to people who had “previously taken an oath… as an officer of the United States… to support the Constitution.” But because the president’s oath is to “preserve, protect and defend” the constitution—not to “support” it—the president is exempt from Section 3, Wallace determined.
It’s a narrow, technical ruling—and lawyers for the six Colorado voters who filed the lawsuit said they will appeal, according to the New York Times. Mario Nicolais, who is on the voters‘ legal team, told the times he was “very pleased” with the opinion. (A Trump campaign spokesperson also praised the ruling, adding that the campaign “anticipates the future dismissals of the other 14th Amendment cases.”)
Among the legal considerations in the case, Wallace was undoubtedly conscious of the monumental consequences of her decision, and the potential that ruling out the Republican frontrunner could cause civil unrest. “Part of the court’s decision is its reluctance to embrace an interpretation which would disqualify a presidential candidate without a clear, unmistakable indication that such is the intent of Section 3,” she wrote in her decision. Elsewhere, judges have avoided ruling on the issue, dismissing similar lawsuits in New Hampshire and Minnesota on procedural grounds. In Michigan, a judge ruled that the questions at the heart of the cause—including the meaning of insurrection—were “nonjusticiable, political” issues that should be up to Congress to settle.
Congress, of course, has already weighed in. While the House of Representatives impeached Trump the month after the Capitol attack on a charge of “incitement of insurrection,” the Senate failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to convict him.