Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Viewpoint: Why the Supreme Court Made a Big Mistake in the Trump Decision

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As our nation faces another crisis stirred by former President Donald Trump and his followers’ refusal to accept the 2020 election results, we’re reminded of the significance of the 14th Amendment. Despite being ratified in 1868, this amendment laid the groundwork for our modern rights, and its provisions aim to prevent any threat to American democracy. The framers intended it to be binding, making it an integral part of our country’s fundamental law. This constitutional mandate enforces itself, not needing a law or trial for validation.

On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Trump remains eligible for the presidential ballot. While the Court agreed on Trump’s presence on the Colorado ballot, there was a split on how broadly this decision should be interpreted. A conservative 5-4 majority, usually emphasizing states’ rights, asserted that no state could exclude a federal candidate from any ballot. In contrast, four justices, including the three liberal ones, believed the Court should have limited its opinion.

Although ratified during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment’s provisions extend beyond that period, serving as a safeguard for the future. By allowing Trump on the 2024 presidential ballot, the Supreme Court significantly weakens Section 3, eroding its power. This aligns with the Court’s unfortunate 19th-century history of undermining Reconstruction federal civil rights laws and constitutional amendments.

The Colorado Supreme Court had upheld Trump’s disqualification under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment in the Trump v. Anderson case. However, the Supreme Court rejected this, emphasizing that Congress, not the states, is responsible for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates. Section 3 does not mandate Congress to enforce disqualification but grants the power to lift it through a two-thirds majority in both houses.

It’s crucial to note that qualifications to run for president and the constitutional disqualification under Section 3 are self-executing. The Colorado Supreme Court didn’t enforce the disqualification; it merely upheld Section 3. In a concurring opinion, three liberal justices criticized the majority for lacking “judicial restraint” and argued against potential chaos resulting from the decision, highlighting the need for congressional legislation to enforce Section 3 in all future cases.

While the liberal justices understood the majority decision’s potential to weaken the constitutional disqualification, they mistakenly thought upholding the Colorado decision would lead to each state deciding independently. Contrary to this decision allowing Trump on all state ballots, upholding the 14th Amendment’s disqualification would have removed him from every state’s presidential ballot. Similar to the Reconstruction era, where even Republican-appointed judges contributed to undoing federal laws and amendments, the justices now leave us vulnerable to future insurrection attempts. As they concluded, “the majority goes beyond the necessities of this case to limit how Section 3 can bar an oathbreaking insurrectionist from becoming President.”

This case reached the Supreme Court after an appeal from the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Anderson, where Trump was ruled ineligible for the presidential ballot under Section 3. Secretaries of state in Maine and Illinois also invoked this amendment clause to try to remove Trump from their states’ ballots.

Section 3’s language is straightforward: anyone who, after swearing an oath to uphold the Constitution, participates in or aids a violent insurrection against the U.S. government is barred from office unless pardoned by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. This provision covers the president, like any other federal official taking such an oath. Trump’s legal efforts to shield the president from the rule of law and grant absolute immunity, even in cases of personal wrongdoing, mock our republican form of government and threaten to turn our republic into a monarchy where the king is beyond reproach.

In the mid-19th century, the Republican Party, led by former President Abraham Lincoln, aimed to protect the American republic from future insurrections following the slaveholders’ rebellion. Historians and legal scholars, supporting Trump’s disqualification, submitted amicus briefs to SCOTUS, citing ample evidence from the framers and congressional debates. It’s worth mentioning that one of the briefs was signed by me, and my book was referenced in another.

For the conservative Supreme Court majority to disregard this historical evidence is akin to betraying their constitutional interpretation principles, especially originalism. They preach strict construction based on the framers’ intent but seem to apply it selectively. Notably, Justice Clarence Thomas, with potential conflicts of interest due to his wife’s involvement in events preceding the January insurrection, should have recused himself from this case.

The Supreme Court has a regrettable history of political interference despite its claim to impartial jurisprudence. From the 1857 Dred Scott decision to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, it consistently played a dismal role in undermining democratic governance and equal justice for Black Americans in the 19th century. The Reconstruction-era interracial democracy succumbed to domestic terror and reactionary judicial decisions that left Black Americans at the mercy of ex-Confederates, ushering in disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, racial terror, and more.

The Court never enforced the provision in the 14th Amendment that would penalize southern states for disfranchising Black voters by reducing their representation in Congress. This dormant clause could be activated against states with current voter suppression laws. While the Supreme Court has recently upheld equal protections under the 14th Amendment to dismantle Jim Crow and establish rights for women, the conservative majority has been eroding these gains by reversing Roe v. Wade and undermining the Voting Rights Act.

It appears the Court develops concerns about enforcing the Constitution only when American democracy’s fate is at risk. Despite its historic low approval ratings, the Supreme Court has continued to adhere to its mostly dismal record from the Reconstruction era, potentially allowing Section 3, a provision preventing the overthrow of the American republic, to become ineffectual.

There isn’t substantial case law on Section 3, primarily because the country hasn’t faced violent domestic insurrections since the slaveholders’ rebellion. Similar to the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause being misused during the Gilded Age, Section 3 was only implemented against Socialist Party representative Victor Berger, who opposed World War I. Berger’s lawyer wrongly argued that Section 3 was repealed by the Amnesty Acts of 1872 and 1898, pardoning ex-Confederates. Despite this misuse, everyone acknowledges that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is a binding and enforceable part of the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has now rendered it ineffective, echoing its past actions of gutting 14th Amendment protections.

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